There was much applauding following the Booksellers’ Association’s call for the government to support bookshops against the looming giant of Amazon, which followed the French Government’s announced financial support of its bookshops.
I have also been in very few publishing conversations in the last year without the word Amazon (or Apple or Google, delete as appropriate) being mentioned within the first couple of minutes. Then usually follows ‘can’t believe what they’re doing now’/’putting us all out of business’/’taking over world’ .
All this is understandable as in many aspects the industry faces some of its toughest trading conditions in its 400-year history following digital evolution and the small matter of a global recession. However, many of the conversations are at best unproductive and at worst counter-productive.
The fact is, if you don’t want to remain in the industry now that’s fine, and if you do, you are going to have to deal with it.
History is not short of periods of one company near-monopolies in various industries and what it tells us is that they do come to an end and not through government intervention, charity from the customer or a much awaited lightning bolt from the heavens. Change happens due to two things: evolution in customer behavior and improvement in competition.
Our industry is not looking for martyrs, bemoaning their dashed businesses, but entrepreneurs. And one thing is for certain: moaning is far easier than innovating.
To further the point, I met with a shadow cabinet minister last year to discuss business plans and they stated, sadly correctly, that the creative industries are widely-known for being some of the most conservative in the country. This sounds like madness, and should be embarrassing to all, but the fact is that generally where we should be at our best, we are too often at our worst.
The first thing we should do is to stop creating a cartoon of the Big Bad Wolf. Yes, the government shouldn’t be so limp-wristed over the tax situation, but there is much to learn from the likes of Amazon. They are in word uttering focused on the customer (who are in fact in charge of everyone), move instantly on opportunities, while operating a long-term and clear strategy stage-by-stage.
And to further the point, they also represent a major customer for many in the industry - publishers should stop moaning about their girlfriend/boyfriend while continuing to sleep with them. We enjoy working with Amazon and will continue to do so closely, though I also respect Barefoot Books for stopping supplying them – an innovative and brave approach, focusing on smaller communities.
And there are more recent signs of this innovation coming through, which is great – new publishing initiatives and some independent bookshops, as well as Foyles, have realised the importance of boutique, differentiating and customer bases, and market and sell expertly. The industry is even, very, very slowly, getting its head around where traditional and self-publishing can sit together.
So this article is not intended as an indictment but a call to arms and to the realisation that there isn’t going to be divine intervention but we can and will trade our way into an exciting future. We should ban all ‘woe is me’ and other self-absorption, in business it is usually the preamble before extinction – if you want the industry as it used to be, better to leave it and take a history course. For the rest of us, we should remind ourselves that we are a Creative Industry and we should never forget this.
Creativity, strategy and implementation (and without delay). The latter two is what the ‘Big Bad Wolfs’ are great at, so we need to add into the mix what we offer in creativity and evolve the market rather than be evolved.
Tom Chalmers is founder and Managing Director of Legend Times (Legend Press, Paperbooks Publishing, Legend Business, New Generation Publishing and Write-Connections) and IPR License.