What is a bookshop for?

What is a bookshop for?

The Zoom call was going well.

I liked the technology on show, and I felt bookshops could definitely benefit from using it. It provided a way of alerting the bookshop - ahead of a visit - when someone with a disability (or who needed additional help) would be arriving at the shop. Staff would be prepped to assist, from putting down a ramp for a wheelchair user, to providing a quiet space for an autistic child. It would be a powerful message - with plenty of PR potential - that a bookshop was accessible and inclusive.

And then the conversation took a different turn.

Had I thought about other data that could be collected on the app? Not just about abilities and needs, but buying preferences and favourite books?

No, I admitted, I hadn't been thinking in that direction.

Well, the system might be able to determine what customers liked and didn't like, and staff might already be able to recommend a book before they entered the shop. In fact, the books could be presented to the customer on arrival. How cool would that be?

My heart sank.

To be fair to the person in question - a passionate entrepreneur with a fledgling business - I had got excited about the potential of his software, and I had got him excited about the potential of bookshops to benefit from it. He was simply reflecting that excitement back to me - thinking aloud and making connections, as the best entrepreneurs do. To be clear, I genuinely like his solution. I think it has huge potential for independent retailers.

But it does sum up a problem at the heart of technology - and retail technology in particular. It's a subtle point, but it's important, because if we don't solve the problem of technology in retail, then the future really is a sterile wasteland on our high streets, dominated by a few technology giants, even if they clothe themselves in the trappings of traditional retail.

It comes down to a question of diversity and the way we discover books.

The inconvenient truth about books is that they require effort in a way that music, films and television do not. There are significant opportunity costs to reading a particular book, with so many new books published monthly on top of the entirety of everything that is still in print. So to make informed decisions we use cues from the wider world - such as reviewers and bookgroups - and we bootstrap an idea of what we should commit to read next.

Better yet, we take the advice of someone we trust. Who places a book in our hands and tells us that this next book is worth the commitment and effort.

When you trust someone, you take risks. You try new things. You make big, bold leaps into trying new authors, new genres. It is the polar opposite of an optimising algorithm which constantly narrows horizons, and instead opens up new worlds of possibilities. New voices, new viewpoints, new perspectives. This is the essence of diversity.

This is also what the best bookshops do. This is what bookshops are for.

They curate. They put in herculean effort to sort through the tsunami of new publications every month. In turn, they rely on relationships with publicists, reps, publishers and authors based on mutual trust and respect to help build this evolving filter. They retain memories of what's been published in the past, and they match this library of the past and present to the customers that come into their shop.

Or used to come into their shop.

The coronavirus has turned everything on its head, and everyone has had to engage with an online world that for so long has represented everything that seems alien, dangerous and a threat to their way of life.

As the current crisis continues to deepen and bite, and as a chilling frost starts to look like a long and bitter winter, those initial rapid forays into the online world are now looking like a lifeline. Speaking bluntly, it is difficult to see a bookshop surviving if they don't make online pay.

But if we want bookshops to survive we mustn't fall into the trap of thinking that technology is there to optimise and replace. Used correctly, technology is a force multiplier, extending the curation and discoverability that make bookshops so critical and valuable to the wider book world, and its ability to get new books out into the world.

Bookshops are critical to diversity. They are critical to a healthy and expanding ecosystem.

From the perspective of the wider book trade, however, many (big) publishers seem to be quietly breathing a sigh of relief; sales seem to be holding up, they are beginning to go directly to the reader, whilst hedging their bets with the online giants.

I can't blame them for that. They are trying to survive too. And really, in a global pandemic, with huge swathes of the economy being decimated, with people dying for god's sake, if we lose a few bookshops and small publishers: does it really matter? Aren't we just being a bit self-indulgent and romanticising a way of commerce that's probably on its way out?

No, because if you care about books, if you care about the publishing ecosystem, if you care about its ability to support a diversity of talent, and if you care about our publishing industry's continued leadership on the global stage: it definitely does matter.

Because that ecosystem is in serious trouble, and we all need to work hard to defend it.

Children's publishing shows us what a dying ecosystem looks like. The loss of those trusted individuals - review coverage, librarians, children's booksellers - means writing for children is increasingly unviable for all except a few giants. When a single author dominates over 50% of the bestseller charts, this isn't evidence of some underhanded content or a Machiavellian publisher - it's an algae bloom caused by an ecosystem seriously awry.

Diversity needs constant effort. Bookshops need protection. So what to do?

From the wider book trade's perspective, they need to continue to follow the BA's lead and reinforce the message that bookshops need support. Ideally politicians need to take action to eliminate the injustices and unfairness of high street rents and rates, and landlords who would just as sooner see bookshops closed and retail units turned into flats.

(To extend the ecological metaphor, go and Google how 'No Take Zones' benefit biodiversity, and think about how we could create something similar for our high streets.)

But that's not coming soon. Ecosystems cannot be magically waved back into existence overnight.

So as booksellers, we need to take action now. As painful as it is, as unjust as it appears, and as lacking in confidence as you might be, you need to continue to adopt and adapt technology which takes the essence, character and uniqueness of your shop, and extends it out into your community.

Take that trusted relationship and digitise it. Continue to talk to publicists, publishers, reps and authors to curate and recommend - only now do so using email newsletters, social media, YouTube and TikTok, PayPal and Square. Work with others in your business communities to make it straightforward and natural for customers to order, pay for, collect or receive books.

Whether they know it or not, the book industry needs physical bookshops. Without them, the ecosystem will continue to shrink. How will we spot signs of this? Maybe having no representation on the Government's recently announced Cultural Renewal Taskforce might serve as a wake-up call.

There is also an opportunity here: to use technology to reach out to members of your community who may never have visited your shop. This was what my entrepreneur friend was getting excited about. Technology can make us inclusive in a way that has never happened before - as long as our technology expands horizons and doesn't shut them down.

Mark Thornton is a mentor with the Unwin Charitable Trust. On Monday August 10th bookshop mentors - and Dan Fridd - will be hosting a Twitter chat about how to use technology to make online pay. Follow along from 7pm using the hashtag #UCTmentor.

And if you are interested in making your shop accessible to everyone, I really recommend checking out www.neatebox.com/welcome.