October 18, 2011

How to sell books in England


Black Books: How not to do it

Over in Britain the Booksellers Association (BA) has been doing battle for independent bookshops this autumn. Of course, readers of MobyLives already know that bookshops are some of the most important places in our towns and cities, but the BA wants to make sure that those pulling the purse-strings know that too. They’ve appealed to the ConDem government to revise rates that threaten to price bookshops out of the high street, as the Bookseller reported earlier this month. It’s timely, given recent news that at least twenty-two UK indies are currently up for sale, and in the midst of library closures and concerns about literacy. The buck doesn’t stop there, though: Tim Godfray, CEO of the Booksellers Association, spoke to MobyLives about ebooks, the state of UK bookselling, and what publishers can do to help.

What’s the top priority for the Booksellers Association right now?

Persuading publishers that the current financial model (the commercials between individual publishers and booksellers) is past its sell-by date. The current way of doing business hasn’t given bookshops the support they require to operate in a very different market place to what was around when we had the Net Book Agreement (Retail Price Maintenance system) in place. We are asking publishers at the moment to introduce new commercial arrangements. (But UK Competition Law prevents a trade association like the BA making a specific recommendation as to what new commercial arrangement!)

What’s the most exciting development you’ve seen in UK independent bookselling recently?

The popularity of our Independent Booksellers’ Forums and the support for our IndieBound programme (we are permitted by our American Booksellers Association (ABA) friends to operate this under licence).

Are there any initiatives in UK independent bookselling that you’d like to see adopted in the US?

We want the US booksellers and publishers to adopt our batch system. This is an amazing web-based system enabling booksellers to pay their publishers electronically. It is being used in 61 different countries throughout the world. Bowker and the ABA are hoping to trial it in the US shortly.

And what are you most worried about?

Bookshops going out of business, and being locked out of ebook supply. The latter, however, no longer looks as if it is about to happen. Google have just launched their ebook programme in the UK and retailers can become Affiliates and also sell ebooks via Gardners’ Hive programme.

Do you really think British indies can get a piece of the ebook action?

A number of independent booksellers from the UK attended the ABA’s Winter Institute in January of this year. Our booksellers were hugely impressed by the way in which the US independent booksellers were embracing the digital world. Google, for example, was no longer regarded as the Evil Enemy of US bookstores, but a facilitator enabling American bookstores to have the opportunity to sell ebooks through the Google programme, should they wish to do so.

In the UK we now have the Hive platform and Google’s own Affiliate programme, enabling booksellers of all sizes to promote, offer and sell ebooks. Hive will be followed by Bertrams and other digital aggregators, enabling our independent booksellers to have a number of routes to market.

Amazon, Apple, and Kobo will probably be the big global players in the digital ebook world, and in the UK Waterstone’s, W H Smith and Blackwells will develop considerably their ebook offerings. These large companies will, of course, represent a very significant chunk of the market, but that doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t room for the independent booksellers as well. Sure, they won’t be selling squillions of ebooks, but they will certainly have a piece of the action.

So the digital content side is firming up and becoming clearer. The other side of the coin is the hardware—the e-reader. We’re realising that booksellers really need to sell the content AND a device. Although many booksellers do sell e-readers, more opportunities for booksellers to stock, promote and sell the hardware have to be developed.


Thank you, Tim. And if any booksellers in Britain or elsewhere would like a little extra help with their ebook sales, Melville House might have just the thing for you.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.