The answer to keeping Britain’s high streets alive “has to be political”, a new Economics Foundation consultant Lindsay Mackie told an audience at the Southbank Centre last night (3rd July).
Booksellers, publishers, authors and members of the public gathered for a debate entitled The Perfect Storm; Why Bookshops are in the Frontline in the Battle for the High Street as part of Independent Booksellers Week, running until 6th July.
Mackie, who is also on the board of English PEN, told the audience that politicians had to intervene to prevent the UK “rocketing towards a powerless society”. She said: “We have to take a more political view of what is happening. We have now got to the place where we have market with a society attached onto the side of it. Neo-liberalism is the primary of an unregulated market . . . There is this view that ‘it makes money so what can possibly make it wrong?’ The answer has to be a political one, which involves not accepting that the market is the ultimate arbiter of where we should be.”
Anne Sebba, chair of the Society of Authors, [pictured] said: “I think there are some things authors can do and the first thing they can do is take that button off their website which says ‘buy from Amazon’—it doesn’t need to be there.” She added that the Society of Authors would be happy to put booksellers and authors in touch with each other. “I do actually think there are an awful lot of things authors can do to be proactive. When you do an event, people buy your book because they hear you and feel like they know you and they are taking away a little bit of you.”
She added: “Publishers need to make a point about the physicality of books, something which makes us feel ‘this is a wonderful object’.” She also said she thought bookshops “could be more of a destination".
Author Kate Mosse talked about how she used to go to Silver Moon bookshop on her own as a refuge when she was younger in London. “We should be saying we as a society think bookshops matter,” Mosse said. “It is a statement of who we think we are as a society. It is not about value for money all the time—we do not have to go along with that. I do not think there is a single person in this room that hasn’t bought a book from Amazon, but reading books and buying from stores matters more than that. We should have the courage to say ‘free’ isn’t everything.”
Gordon Wise, agent at Curtis Brown, described his local bookshop as not giving the best customer service and not always knowing which books are out: “The selection is never as broad as I would have liked,” he said. He spoke about the challenging times facing the industry and said: “We have all got to fight extremely hard to keep our place at the table. Publishers will find it is very difficult to keep individual relationships with all these shops. Why aren’t there more regional alliances of booksellers?”
Bookseller Nic Bottomley from Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath said some people thought most independents are "Black Books-esque hobby shops." He said: “People talk about bookshops as places of discovery, but we also need to be places of purchase. I think we should be places of acquisition,” he said. “Nobody showrooms from us because by the end of it they want to pick up a book and walk away with it after a visit. It is not just customer service, it is taking that to the next level, it is sexing it up, pimped for the 21st century.”