In depth: independent retailers

In depth: independent retailers

For independent bookshops, to borrow a line from Charles Dickens, these are both the best of times and the worst of times.

Rarely can there have been as much passion for the work of good independents as there is now. Authors have been lavish in their praise for what they see as "proper" booksellers; newspapers like the Guardian have devoted supplements to promoting them; and campaigns like Independent Booksellers' Week and Love Your Indie have thrust them centre stage.

As Michael Palin put it recently when encouraging people to buy his new book from independents: "There is nothing that lifts the spirits of this author like a good, local independent bookshop. Through all the recent ups and downs of bookselling, the best of the independents have shown the way forward, championing that personal connection between shops, readers and authors that is the lifeblood of the trade."

But this outpouring of love has come for a reason. Even the most optimistic of independent bookshops agree that times have never been tougher than they have been this year, with intense competition from supermarkets and Amazon exacerbated by both the e-book revolution and a prolonged economic downturn that is crippling the high streets on which they stand.

This perfect storm has torn through independents. Measured by membership of the Booksellers Association, their ranks in the UK and Ireland fell by a quarter between 2006, when they stood at 1,483; and the middle of this year, when they numbered 1,099. Fewer and fewer new independents are arriving to take their place, and if the current rate of decline continues, the stock of independent bookshops will be down to three figures by this time next year.

A challenging year
Among remaining independent booksellers, the mood is one of stoic optimism. Not many have made themselves rich this year—but few share the pessimistic view that either the high street or bricks-and-mortar bookselling are doomed. All are confident that, for the best of the bunch, there remains plenty of room on the high street.

Emma Milne-White of the Hungerford Bookshop is typical of many when she says that sales are down slightly, but not disastrously, year on year. "All local businesses are finding it hard, and we're finding we've got to do more than ever to stay where we are." That is a view echoed by Anna Dreda of Wenlock Books in Shropshire. "It's certainly not been wonderful, but nor has it been too bad. We've had to work harder than ever to keep our sales holding up."

Marie Telford of Hampshire's Hayling Island Bookshop says the squeeze on people's spending has tightened this year. "It's tough out there. People are being extremely cautious, and there's been so much bad news about the economy in the media that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

But against this year's bleak economic backdrop, achieving flat or slightly declining sales is no mean feat. Nielsen BookScan's figures show that 5% fewer books were sold through its Total Consumer Market in the first half of this year compared to last. Publishers, of course, have been able to make up at least some of the shortfall with e-book sales, but there is no such cushion for independent bookshops (see box, bottom left).

Independents are far from alone in feeling the pinch, and chains have fared no better—sales at Waterstone's fell 3.8% in the year to end-June, while W H Smith's book sales slipped 4% in the year to end-August. The malaise is far from unique to the book trade either, with figures from the Local Data Company showing that one in seven high street shops currently stands empty. Given all that, independent bookshops that are surviving this year deserve a pat on the back.

"It's not been bad, and certainly better than we were expecting," says Frances Smith of Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books of 2011 so far. "Given all the doom and gloom in the rest of the retail sector, we feel we're doing OK." Elaine Nelson of Sam Read Books in Grasmere, Cumbria, agrees. "It's not been a bad year—not record-breaking either, but we're holding can't be bad."

A handful of independents even report sales that are up year on year, but they tend to be in parts of the country that are insulated from the economic downturn and where small businesses are valued, like Tales on Moon Lane in London's Herne Hill. "We're lucky in that we have very loyal customers who like to shop locally," says manager Georgina Hanratty.

Festive cheer?
As ever, it will be Christmas that makes or breaks the year for independents and determines how many more might close their doors for good in 2012. They report that festive shopping has started already, though "Super Thursday" in late September was a misnomer for most, as most of the big-name books on release were too heavily discounted elsewhere to get much traction in independents—an all too familiar situation that leads to a feeling of being undermined by publishers.

But beyond the celebrity-driven books, independents see plenty to work with this winter. "I'm really optimistic for Christmas—the range seems good and there are some lovely looking books among them which is so important," says Milne-White. Hanratty thinks the current crop of children's books is more appealing than it has been for some time, too. "You can never quite tell for sure, but we're looking forward to a great Christmas."

The best Christmas present of all for independents would be, of course, decent shopping weather. Heavy snowfall put the freeze on sales in the crucial final days of 2010 at shops like Wenlock Books, where Dreda was kept holed up by snow for a week. This year can hardly be worse by comparison—and she is hopeful that people will loosen their purse strings too. "People have been careful in their spending for so long now, and I get the feeling that many of them are thinking: ‘blow it—we're going to get out and have a good Christmas.' "

Problems close to home
Beyond the freak weather—and the riots that affected a handful of city independents' sales this August—the blights on independent booksellers are well known.

upermarkets, Amazon and e-books have all steadily eaten away at their markets—but significant though these challenges are, it is often more parochial matters that are of most concern. In a survey of its members to launch its lobbying campaign for more support for bookshops, the BA identified rates as the most pressing issue, and relief for cultural or educational businesses would certainly help bookshops.

So too would action on car parking charges, a bugbear for just about all independents. Ian Nicholson of Gloucestershire's Alison's of Tewkesbury speaks for most when he says charges put off shoppers, especially in tourist towns like his. "The parking charges round here are so high, and if customers have to look at their watches all the time then they're not going to linger in the shop."

Towns that don't charge reap the benefits, says Karen Millar of Inkspot & Silverleaf in Bo'Ness, Scotland, where parking is free every day. "It really does make a difference. People choose to come here because they know they can park for free and can browse without worrying about the time." In Hungerford, Milne-White has teamed up with her local Chamber of Commerce on an imaginative parking refund scheme that sees shops pay back customers' fees against a minimum spend. "We take a hit out of our own tills, but it means people can linger rather than dash in and out."

Some booksellers have called recently for help from central government in the form of an NBA-style price fixing mechanism, but most accept this is now wishful thinking, and would gladly swap it for help from councils on these more localised concerns: "Towns have got to think about ways to get people coming in and spending money," says Nicholson.

Indies of the future
But independents admit they have some serious thinking to do, too. It is abundantly clear that it is no longer enough to simply wait for sales, and that they must work harder than ever before to pull shoppers in. Events like author talks and book club meetings are increasingly important, as are outside sales to schools and at festivals. Networking, in both the real world and virtually, is vital, because understanding what customers want is more crucial than ever.

It almost goes without saying that passion for customer service and books are prerequisites too. But independents of the future are unlikely to rely purely on books, and many report the value of diversification—into coffee, cards, stationery, music and even a little local publishing. The example of the Torbay Bookshop in Paignton—which recently reversed its decision to close after acquiring a franchise to sell Thorntons chocolates—may be a mixed-stock model for others to follow in the future.

For bookshops that have the energy to achieve all that, a bright future awaits once consumer spending picks up again. "I'm a natural optimist—and I'm convinced there's a place for independent bookshops," says Nicholson. The alternative—the slow death of independents—should alarm anyone with any interest in books, says Jo de Guia of Victoria Park Books, a specialist children's bookshop in Hackney. "On a good day I'm upbeat about the future, but on a bad one I do worry. If we're not careful this is going to become a pin money pursuit for those who can afford it—a hobby rather than a profession—and that would be a great pity."

Dreda thinks more independents will close, but that good ones will remain. "We can't rest on our laurels, and this is not a climate in which you can afford to take it easy or make mistakes. We've got to be better than ever, but I'm cautiously optimistic for the future." Smith agrees: "There will be fewer of us and we won't be dedicated just to selling books. But there will still be good independent bookshops."

Independents on . . . e-books
As if they didn't have enough to worry about, independents are now grappling with the challenge of how to get a share of the e-book market.

Emma Milne-White of the Hungerford Bookshop has seen rising customer interest in e-books. "A couple of years ago I was quite blasé about e-readers. But I've been really taken aback by the kind of people who are buying them now—it's not just the younger generation any more."

But meeting the new demand for e-books isn't straightforward, says Frances Smith of Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books, who thinks independents need far greater support in their efforts. "We should be able to sell e-books but no one has been able to tell us how we can physically do it, or how we can make any money. At the moment it's just not worth the candle." Jo de Guia of Victoria Park Books agrees that the days of independents selling e-books are some way off. "We're far from technophobes and we've looked at it very closely, but the profits as they stand are tiny and the upfront costs make it totally impossible."

Several independents see Gardners' Hive initiative as a potential solution, but Smith thinks it needs much more work before it can be used properly to sell e-books.

Fortunately, for now at least, some customers are buying e-books as well as, rather than instead of, printed ones, says Karen Millar at Inkspot & Silverleaf. "I'm finding that even people that I know have got e-readers still want to come in and pick up real books."

Independents on . . . publishers' support
Publishers have stepped up their support of high street bookshops lately—but independents think their contributions remain hit and miss.

"Some publishers are spot-on in their support, and some you despair of," says Andrew Cant of Simply Books. He identifies by far the biggest criticism of publishers—their escalating discounts to chains, supermarkets and Amazon. "So long as they offer the discounts that they do to the bigger companies, there's no way that independents can ever compete on price, even if we wanted to." Frances Smith of Warwick Books & Kenilworth Books agrees that publishers must stem the tide. "It has devalued books. People think they should all be four or five pounds now, and that if we're selling at full price then we're making a fortune. Publishers need to stand much firmer on discounts."

A side-effect of discounts—the rising cover price of books—is another complaint. "My main gripe is that they keep pushing up the price of books, presumably just so that chains, supermarkets and online businesses can then offer discounts," says Elaine Nelson of Sam Read Books. "The price of backlist titles is going up and up, and there is a limit as to how much a customer is prepared to pay for a paperback."

Some independents see little interest from publishers and get few calls from reps. "I don't think many publishers know we're here," says Ian Nicholson of Alison's of Tewkesbury. But others have excellent relationships and are grateful for support, especially on events, and point to initiatives like Faber's Independent Alliance as an example for other publishers to follow. The Hungerford Bookshop's Emma Milne-White sees a lot of reps, and thinks publishers are waking up to what shops want. "Publishers are really getting on board with independents and trying new initiatives."

But bridges remain to be built, and independents would like to see more incentives like exclusive editions or, at least, windows when they have exclusive rights to sell a book. Until that sort of interest and support is forthcoming, most consider themselves better served by wholesalers—about whom opinions are universally positive—than by publishers.

Independents on . . . the Booksellers Association
After years of being accused of standing by while supermarkets and Amazon blew independent booksellers out of the water, the BA has mounted a bold defence of their work. "We need to build a coalition of publishers, government and consumers to provide opportunities for the passionate and creative entrepreneurs who run bookshops on our high streets to thrive," said BA c.e.o. Tim Godfray earlier this month.

To judge by some reactions this clarion call is too little, too late, but there are independents whose views are more nuanced. "I've got mixed feelings about the BA," says Anna Dreda of Wenlock Books. "They say it's a broad church and has to welcome supermarkets, but that doesn't make life any easier for independent bookshops."

But Dreda and others acknowledge the value of services like Book Tokens and Batch. IndieBound is widely liked too, and for those who want a supermarket-free zone there is always the Independent Booksellers Forum. "The BA provides a meeting place as well as services," says Andrew Cant of Simply Books. "Just getting together and sharing ideas is so important."

Jo de Guia of Victoria Park Books is positive: "Joining the BA is the best money I've ever spent—they are always there to offer help if I need it." And the work of the BA needs to be put in a wider context, adds Marie Telford of the Hayling Island Bookshop. "We're very lucky to have the BA. Anyone who complains about them should ask other businesses on their high streets what sort of support they get. There's hardly an industry that has a harder working trade body than ours."

Survival tips
Ten independent booksellers on ways to thrive in the future

1. Think about the customers
"Our local people are the ones who make us or break us, and we're trying all the time to think about what they would enjoy. We've learnt to focus on the customers, not the competition." Andrew Cant, Simply Books.

2. Live to serve
"In the end for independent bookshops it always comes down to fantastic, personal customer service. We always try to go the extra mile." Anna Dreda, Wenlock Books.

3. Stock deep
"It might seem counter-intuitive to buy more books when sales are down, but range is what makes us different. It's our USP—I know it's what the market wants." Ian Nicholson, Alison's of Tewkesbury.

4. Trust your judgement
"Booksellers are in the industry because we love books, and we should pass that on to customers. If I don't like a book, on the whole I don't stock it. If I like the look of it, then I know that I can sell it onto others. It's a simple premise but it seems to work." Elaine Nelson, Sam Read Books.

5. Celebrate the book
"Over the past few years books have been treated like tins of baked beans. We need to celebrate those special somethings that only physical books provide." Marie Telford, Hayling Island Bookshop.

6. Join local life
"Being part of the community is so important. It's all the extra little things that come with an independent bookshop that keep them going and will do so in the future." Karen Millar, Inkspot & Silverleaf.

7. Find ways to get people coming back
"Author events, school visits, storytelling sessions—things like that really add up in people's minds. If you support your local community they'll support you back." Georgia Hanratty, Tales on Moon Lane.

8. Get together on buying
"We need to find a way to negotiate discounts collectively so we have some muscle. It's time independents showed the industry that we're much more than the sum of our parts." Jo de Guia, Victoria Park Books.

9. Promote yourselves
"Independent bookshops don't shout enough about what we do. Just because we're small doesn't mean we can't do big things—and we need to tell people that." Emma Milne-White, Hungerford Bookshop.

10. Work hard
"Some people set up shops and have no idea how hard they need to work. This is not a nine-to-five job—you've got to enjoy it, be creative and do so much more than just stand at the till and take the money." Frances Smith, Warwick Books & Kenilworth Books.