The media is wakening up to the threat posed to the high street by Amazon, and the contribution made to wider society by bookshops, Booksellers Association president Nic Bottomley told delegates at the BA's annual conference on Monday (10th September). The conference took place days after the sale of Foyles to Waterstones and the news was a hot topic amongst attendees with many expressing surprise over the news and some offering cautious optimism.
Poet and performer Benjamin Zephaniah revealed how books were his “liberation” following difficult experiences at school while author and TED speaker Margaret Heffernan urged booksellers to form “connective tissue” through working together, rather than competing against each other.
Around 250 booksellers from around the UK gathered at the event at Aston University in Birmingham with a trade show taking place on Sunday (9th September) and the main conference on the following day. Bottomley acknowledged that Amazon remained a threat to high street bookshops but said that there had been a “shift” and that the association wanted to focus instead on promoting the contribution of its members. “More needs to be done to curb their [Amazon’s] behaviour. But there has been a shift I think in public opinion and in the media slowly… and there’s more awareness of the negative influence they have on the high street and how much their behaviour affects our businesses in the day to day.
“Now we are trying to focus more on the positive impact of bookshops on the economy, on communities and British high street – still hold Amazon to account and anyone else that acts in a potentially anti-competitive way but now is the time to shout louder than ever about the contribution bookshops make to society.”
He encouraged delegates to embrace inclusion and said that “we have to make sure every single member of the community can access our shops and are welcome there.”
The co-owner of Bath-based indie bookshop Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights also described how the association was considering the concept of a "University of Bookselling" to further boost collaboration while BA m.d Meryl Halls outlined plans for shopfloor "swaps", seeing store owners spending a day in each others' shops to gain new insights.
Meanwhile Zephaniah (above) held the audience spellbound in his keynote speech as he described the bullying and discrimination experienced in his school years, and then growing up to sleep alongside a gun, before being "liberated" "by books.
He also urged inclusion so that all communities could embrace books rather than existing in an echo chamber. “You always have to think about the people who think you are crazy.”
Heffernan also outlined why outright competitiveness should be avoided and “helpfulness” promoted instead, building on her TED talk "Forget the Pecking Order at Work". She described an evolutionary biology experiment which saw a “superflock” of the most productive chickens studied alongside an average group of chickens. Most of the superchickens pecked each other to death while the average animals thrived.
Instead she urged delegates to form “connective tissue” so that cross-working and collaboration could help businesses improve.
“Numerous studies show that [helpfulness] is what distinguishes high achieving organisations from average organisations.”
Meanwhile the successful applicants of the first tranche of the BA’s Diversity and Inclusion grants totaling £50,000 were announced, as part of the association's efforts for inclusivity. Halls revealed that 15 stores had been successful, offering an “incredibly wide variety of ideas”, including The Lighthouse in Edinburgh, Burley Fisher and Pages in Hackney in London, and the Rabbit Hole in Brigg. Other winners included the Little Ripon Bookshop, Burway Books in Church Stretton, Seven Stories in Newcastle and the Book Nook in Hove. Tales on Moon Lane in London also scooped some of the share, along with Orb’s Community Bookshop in Huntly. Carmina Cadelicia in Isle of Skye, Vibes & Scribes in Cork and the Bookmark in Grantown-on-Spey. Sevenoaks Bookshop and Rogan’s in Bedford completed the list of winners.
“There was lots is about reaching out to marginalised communities, setting up LGBT groups and disability featured quite a bit as well,” Halls said. “The BA has never granted money before to its members, so this is quite an innovative thing.”
The grants scheme was announced in May with £250 and £1,500 to bookshops, offered across two years: £30,000 in 2018 will be made available and £20,000 in 2019 will be freed up for projects.
Ahead of the conference, on Friday (7th September) it was announced that Waterstones had bought Foyles' three shops in London – Royal Festival Hall, Waterloo and Westfield Stratford – and shops in Bristol, Birmingham and Chelmsford for an undisclosed fee.
Jane Streeter, owner of the Book Case in Lowdham, revealed she had been taken aback by the news. “I was quite shocked I have to say, it was a huge surprise, there was no indication, I hadn’t heard any rumours,” she said. “I can see the potential with publishers to do much bigger things and it makes sense if Foyles needed that. It’s a hard one because there are so many differences between about how they look and how they operate, and so it will be very interesting now to see how they merge and I hope that Foyles – and Waterstones – don’t lose their look and individual atmosphere.”
Streeter echoed other delegates who told The Bookseller that the success of the new venture will depend partly on Foyles retaining its distinctive characteristics as much as possible.
Meanwhile Sweet Cherry Publishing’s sales and publicity executive Jess Stenson said that after initial disappointment she believed it could offer wider potential for indie presses.
“As an independent publisher it can be hard to break into Waterstones especially with debut authors and titles which are more of a risk so we found Foyles was sort of an easier route to go down because they’re willing to take more risks,” she told The Bookseller. “So when we found out our initial concern was ‘is it going to be harder in the future for our debut authors to break into the trade market?’ That was the initial five second thought and then you can see the potential – this is a way for these authors to get an even bigger platform, if they get into one they can get into the other. So I really don’t know which way it’s going to go.”
On Monday evening it was announced that six indie stores including From the Madding Crowd, Imagined Things, Hunting Raven, Mostly Books, Moon Lane Ink and Newham Bookshop had won the Independent Bookshop Innovation Award, run by Pan Macmillan as part of its Macmillan 175 celebrations.