Following the recent Foyle’s Great Bookshop Debate, I was hoping to feel reassured about the future of publishers and bookshops that are independent. But this “future” is far from certain. Theories about the demise of print and the bookshop are certainly far-fetched, but the demise of the truly independent bookshops and publishing houses is almost a reality and we need to act with speed and determination if we are going to prevent it.
I work for Pluto Press, a left-wing political publishing house in Highgate famous for publishing people like Noam Chomsky or (whisper it) Karl Marx. At Pluto we do what we can to remain truly independent because it’s something we believe in – our production infrastructure in largely independent; our sales representatives are independent; many of the bookshops we sell into are independent; we try to build the best possible relationship with independent media. Both politically and practically, independence is what we strive for.
But we are just one company and when the landscape of our industry changes, there’s only so much we can do. One of the big compromises we’ve been forced to make is working with corporations like Amazon for the simple reason that they exert an ever greater control over the book-buying infrastructure. The numbers of people who now buy books online compared to in bookshops is a sad fact but a fact we have to recognise, even though our hope is that one day this won’t be necessary. More recently we’ve begun to see the spectre of compromise looming in other areas as well, and it seems likley that these problems will intensify rather than abate.
These are not unique occurrences within one industry. The tendency towards monopoly is a persistent feature of almost every sector of the more developed market economies and the existence of corporations like Amazon, which straddle dozens of different industries, shows that this tendency will now only deepen. Until we understand that to be independent is to move against the very spirit of the age, not just a few big companies, then we really won’t understand where we are or what we can do. It’s a hostile environment where we simply can’t rely on anyone to help us if we can’t help ourselves. One radical political commentator recently described what we do as a “necessary evil” and then went on to say that “no obligation exists to keep [radical publishers] running out of sentiment” – this is a strange paradox where radical socialists and hard-nosed capitalists end up making the same argument: adapt or die.
Ironically, risk-aversion may now be the riskiest approach any publisher or bookseller can adopt. There is no doubting that many more independents will become unprofitable and go the way of recent acquisitions like Quercus. The survivors will not be those who merely carry on as usual and hope to hold on to what they have. At best this is a model for a zero-growth business that lurches from crisis to crisis as its core demographic ages, changes and evaporates.
Dynamic growth requires an equally dynamic approach which claws back ground already ceded to the corporate sector and – more importantly – exploits those areas where the big names simply can’t compete. This latter point was made by Robert Hiscox of White Horse Bookshops during the aforementioned debate when he said, “We have got to offer something different,” but I’d like to expand on that in a slightly different direction – we have got to offer something preferable, where preference is no longer set by price but by positive identification.
A major fallacy which besets independents is “if you build it, they will come”. In reality, belief in the inherent quality of what you offer is often a recipe for bankruptcy. One of the big lessons we should learn from the corporate world is that customers don’t always know what they want and generating demand is therefore vital. This puts marketing and publicity centre-stage, alongside the physical products themselves. That “branding” is still a dirty word to some independents is not a sign of principle but a symptom of sclerosis. You don’t need a multi-million pound budget to create brand-identity, what you need is an ability to tell your story in a way that’s compelling to clients and customers. In fact, this is something that big business shouldn’t be able to do as easily or as well as independents simply because they are so big and therefore so amorphous. At the end of the day, who are Amazon? What are they about? Who works for them?
Build the relationships
Through creating a story that encourages positive brand identification we can build relationships, between ourselves and between other people, which will generate genuine loyalty. At Pluto we build these relationships through being involved in the communities and interest groups of the people who we hope to sell our books to. Events, newsletters, blog posts, social media networking – this is what community outreach looks like. The people we care most about are the people we talk to on a regular basis. If customers only hear from you when you’ve got a sale on (i.e. when you really need their money), they’re going to treat you with the contempt you deserve and they’re going to feel less and less obligated to prefer you over more cost-effective competitors. The more you engage with the people you sell to and help them to feel that they are part of a conversation, and not just a sales pitch, the more likely they are to see buying something from you specifically as something they want to do because they want to be involved in a relationship with you, because they identify positively with who you are.
Independents actually have a natural ability to build positive identification if they know how to harness it effectively. Forget about competitive pricing, your Amazon Sales Ranking, and even your sales forecasts for the next quarter, and start asking yourself – who are we? Who are we speaking to? How can we meet them? And how can we make them really like us? These are bigger, more existential questions and taking the time away from other things to focus on them will always seem like a risk, a lot of people are too used to thinking like a corporate sales executive when they work for a business which doesn’t need one. But the alternative, the apparent “safe option” of trying to avoid these questions and just focus on competing in the narrowest sense, is no alternative at all.
It’s time to take risks, tell our story and build relationships based on positive identification. If we do that then hopefully the demise of the independent bookshop or publishing house will turn out to be greatly exaggerated. At least, I hope so.
Solomon Lamb is office manager at radical publisher Pluto Press