Why the survival of bookshops must matter to us all

Bookshops have been a bellwether measure during this crisis.  The media hunger for information on the recovery of bookshops has been insatiable, and the outpouring of affection for bookshops as they re-open extremely moving. Bookshops stand as emblems for the prospects for the high street as we edge our way to a tentative new reality and the appropriate balance between public health and essential economic activity.

And yet, and yet, the potential longer term damage done to bookselling by this crisis should not be quietly pushed to one side, as if re-opening bookshops is all that’s required.  We all need to pay very close attention to what high street bookselling needs.  And by all, I mean the government, local authorities, the trade – particularly the larger corporate publishers – the media, consumers, and trade organisations.  We need to ensure high street bookselling survives this period renewed and not mortally wounded.

The government has to act. Retail is way beyond the sum of its parts; it creates jobs, community cohesion, social activity, a sense of belonging, common purpose, a shared space. The loss of retailers in this torrid transition will not only leave high street without a heart, it will also have profound impacts on the way we live in our communities. That’s why we at the Booksellers Association are lobbying hard for a fundamental, radical overhaul of the rates system, and for robust, imaginative interventions on rent and landlord/tenant relationships. Only 13% of retail rents were paid on June quarter day, and the extension of the moratorium on debt enforcement, welcome though it is, is only kicking the can down the road; there is no prospect for many retailers being able to pay their rents with limited income and a compromised future, and landlords must be made to take their share of this burden.

As regards the trade, Philip Jones cited a publisher in his leader column last week who claimed this had been a ‘golden period’ for book sales, which should give serious pause for thought.  Publishers may well be seeing uplift from online and direct-to-consumer sales – but any model that sees publishers distracted from the role high street bookshops play in the books ecosystem needs to be challenged, hard.  

The average indie bookshop, near the start of lockdown, was operating at an average of 20% of normal turnover. By no definition is this a golden period for those businesses – and that’s with many of them deftly moving online, continuing to engage with customers, stay visible, relevant, bring authors and events to consumers online, and operate a non-stop, pick-and-pack, labour-intensive, low-return, relentless, staff-free version of bookselling – bookselling, as has been said repeatedly, with all the joy sucked out of it. They are clever people; their sector was in growth pre-Covid, they will continue to inventively develop their businesses, but they need assistance to find a new equilibrium. They need support on terms, on returns, on release dates, on signed stock, on author availability; they need authors and publishers to promote them to consumers; the indies amongst them need a robust online platform to sell on, they need high street communities capable of pulling together.

There are serious risks from the bifurcated book trade reality which this crisis has intensified. That reality sees large publishers thriving during lockdown on the one hand and small indie presses facing extinction on the other; it sees Amazon, with its subsidised, Chosen-One status,  on the one hand; and physical bookshops, burdened with fixed costs, the trauma of front-line, Covid-era re-opening pressures and inescapable real-world fiscal obligations, on the other. Of course these can all co-exist; consumers can purchase their books wherever they want to; publishers are free to find audiences wherever they choose. But publishers who believe this is a ‘golden period’ for book sales should consider the reality of a world with fewer bookshops in it, and should act now to invest in a mixed bookselling economy where they are not, in the end, left at the mercy of Amazon and with a compromised high street bookselling offer.

Authors too have a crucial part to play in the recovery – the temptation, often under sales pressure from their publishers, to link to Amazon by default when talking about books (theirs – or, even more powerfully -  others’) online is understandable, but let’s face it, NOBODY EVER needs to be told how to, or whether to, link to Amazon. And there are plenty of consumers who actively choose NOT to shop there, and to discover books differently; high street booksellers offer them a real, and richer, alternative.

This challenge is about more than economics. It’s also about human realities: a bookselling landscape compromised by four months of unprecedented forced closure; incredibly strong-minded, entrepreneurial, creative and energetic booksellers worn close to exhaustion by the demands of constantly re-inventing their business model. It’s about the mental health of bookshop owners running businesses that are their livelihoods, who also carry a weighty duty of care for the safety of themselves and their staff as they return to front-line, public-facing retail work.

 On the upside, there are a slew of good books coming from now until Christmas, and we know books tend to weather a recession. There is the prospect too of an altered high street– rents may fall as some retail fails, which might make it more affordable for the survivors. 

 More than anything, though, we must as a trade look to our bookshops as the jewel in our crown and do all we can, structurally, emotionally and commercially, to ensure their survival and their recovery.