Independent view

<p>Richard Barker</p><p>According to William Cowper, "Huntingdon is one of the neatest towns in the Kingdom." But William Cowper died more than 200 years ago, so perhaps we should not rely wholly on his judgement. Huntingdon tries hard to be the type of attractive county town that is the stock in trade of Regional Tourist Boards and calendar publishers. Yet Huntingdon is a town that somehow fails to live up to expectations. It has a few fine buildings, an interesting riverscape, and some noteworthy churches, but it is not quite pretty enough, not quite smart enough, not quite quaint enough, and, to my mind, lacks the essential character and personality to fulfil its ambition. </p><p>Twenty-first century Huntingdon promotes itself on its proximity to Cambridge, its boating on the Great Ouse, its racecourse, and upon the gynaecological serendipity that made it the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell. This last fact is celebrated principally at the town's Cromwell Museum, in the Old Grammar School building on the High Street. Here, inscribed on the pavement, is Samuel Carrington's well-documented comment on Cromwell: "His greatest delight was to read men rather than books." </p><p>A more cynical analysis might lead one to conclude that Cromwell read men rather than books because he could not find a book to read. For, almost unbelievably, Huntingdon has not a single bookshop.</p><p>Huntingdon is not a bad retail centre. Most of the big national multiples are here, albeit not with their latest formats or fascias. The town is large enough to attract Boots, Woolworth's, W H Smith, Next and a Marks&amp;Spencer Food Store, but not quite big enough to get these retailers properly engaged. </p><p>It is understandable that Waterstone's and Borders are not represented: Huntingdon would be off their radar. But one would not be surprised to find an Ottakar's. Most probably the town features on the Ottakar's property "wants" list, but it's probable too that there have always been more attractive options available. </p><p>If the absence of the multiples is understandable, why is there no independent? There is no easy explanation; there is no good reason. If you are that person who has dreamt of making a living as an independent bookseller, away from the big city and the corporate treadmill, then get yourself to Huntingdon quickly. Book into the exceedingly comfortable Old Bridge Hotel--go easy on what Egon Ronay judges "the best wine list of any restaurant in the country"--and start searching for the right site straight away. </p><p>You will need, say, 1,500 sq ft of retail space, for which you'll have to pay perhaps &#163;35,000 a year (there are currently few units empty, but take that as a positive sign). You'll need something in excess of &#163;50,000 to fit and equip your premises adequately; and you'll need a further &#163;60,000 to purchase a decent opening stock. </p><p>If you're a good bookseller, a half-decent business person, and capable of selling both yourself and your business, then you will get your turnover well above &#163;500,000 within three years. On that level of sales, you'll be able to pay yourself a better than living wage and earn a worthwhile return on your investment. </p><p>But don't leave it too long.</p><p>Cork between a rock and a hard place</p><p>I was sad to see Cork International go into liquidation. Such events are a reflection on the state of our trade and should not be allowed to pass without lessons being learned. From the outside, we can only speculate as to the root cause of Cork's problems. But it would be very surprising if a significant contributory factor were not a flaw in the Cork business model. As an intermediary, Cork had the worst of both worlds. On one side, publishers--the sole source of supply--desperate to buy volume at virtually any price but with only so much margin to play with. On the other side, some of the most powerful and demanding retailers in the world. There was simply not enough margin to feed every mouth.</p><p>We really must get wise to what the supermarkets are doing. They offer none of the added value that is fundamental to nurturing serious book-buying and through which sales of publishers' profitable backlists are enhanced. The supermarkets simply take the easily available cream and, in so doing, undermine the strength of the traditional retail book trade. </p><p>What is more, because they have no long-term interest in the book industry, they can negotiate with suppliers that much more aggressively. If they can't get the prices they want, they'll simply drop books and sell something else. If, in getting the prices they want, they undermine the established infrastructure of our industry, then so be it. Why should they care? </p><p>I don't blame the supermarkets. In their position, most of us would act in much the same way. Ultimately, only the publishing industry can rein in a threat that is altering the balance of the book business fundamentally and permanently--and not for the better.</p><p>For independent booksellers, the squeeze is becoming life-threatening. On the one side there are supermarkets selling books to consumers at prices almost lower than those at which independents can buy from their suppliers (Bill Clinton: My Life &#163;14.97 in Tesco; &#163;13.75 from Bertrams). On the other side there are publishers, with only so much margin to play with, paying more than the industry can sustain to buy supermarket shelf space, unable therefore to offer realistic discounts to those booksellers to whom they will turn when the supermarkets have moved on to other products.</p><p>Christmas catalogue compromise</p><p>It's Christmas catalogue time again. This year, the long-running, Booksellers Association-supported Books for Giving catalogue faces competition from a new Bertrams initiative. The two catalogues will inevitably carry a broadly similar range of titles, both can be personalised, but only Books for Giving attempts seasonal exploitation of the "Richard&amp;Judy" phenomenon. The use of a standard trade catalogue is a good example of a perennial dilemma faced by independent booksellers. </p><p>Larger, multiple retailers have influence. That influence is exerted through the purchasing power associated with scale. Multiples can afford their own catalogues, their own point-of-sale material and their own websites--online literary lifestyle experiences (I'm desperate for the day when a multiple bookseller's website features a click-through to a coffee shop site). Not to mention the scope that they have to price promote.</p><p>Smaller, independent retailers lack the influence and power that comes from purchasing muscle. They have a real desire to express their independence and character, but simply cannot afford to brand individually all the promotional tools to which they would like to have access. To what extent is the independent bookseller prepared to compromise, to take the benefits of a "trade" promotion and accept the inevitable loss of individuality? The dilemma is presented in different ways throughout the year. </p><p>Does the Small Business Forum mean marginalisation, and other dilemmas</p><p>Booksellers may find themselves facing a similar quandary as a result of the Booksellers Association's initiative to establish a Small Business Forum. At first sight this would appear to be a worthwhile development. Smaller businesses face different challenges from those of larger corporations. A forum for the exchange of ideas and best practice has immediate attraction, not least because some expert and interesting booksellers have shown support for the idea. That said, the development does raise a few questions. </p><p>First, if the BA feels it must establish a separate forum to meet the needs of independents, then for how long, and to what extent, has the association been failing its smaller members? </p><p>Second, one stated aim of the forum is to provide support for independents who feel "isolated". This is a very real phenomenon and one that a representative trade body should justifiably address. But there is a risk that must be acknowledged and managed. </p><p>Finding support from those who face similar issues and problems is an attraction, but if, in so doing, smaller booksellers marginalise themselves, they will do themselves no favours. There are lessons to be learned from the multiples, and good practice is not unknown among larger retailers. Whether we like it or not, our industry will increasingly be dominated by large, often multinational, players. The task for independents is to find a role within that environment, not outside it.</p><p>Third, the Christmas catalogue dilemma must, at some point, become an issue. </p><p>The Small Business Forum might start out with innocent intentions as a self-help group. If it is to last and deliver real value then it must, at some stage, give influence and power to those who, collectively, can achieve what, in isolation, would be beyond their ambitions. It is at that point that those participating independents will have to make choices. True, genuine independence, or the compromise that collective activity demands? </p><p>Whatever the difficulties, it's an initiative worthy of support.</p><p>In search of the perfect independent</p>