July 10, 2013

Independent Booksellers Week — where do we go from here?


IBW: A week of contemplation as well as celebration

The UK’s Independent Booksellers Week, which ran all last week, aimed to promote local independent bookshops around the country, and to celebrate their unique contribution to communities, readers and authors themselves. Melville House got involved too; I interviewed a number of indie booksellers and you can read those interviews here, here, here and here.

But IBW was also a good opportunity for bookshops, and those involved in them, to take stock. A focal point of the week was a debate at the Southbank Centre entitled, ‘The Perfect Storm: Why Bookshops are in the frontline in the battle for the High Street’. The panel included the author Kate Mosse, bookseller Nic Bottomley from Mr B’s Emporium in Bath and the literary agent Gordon Wise. In a week of celebrating independent bookshops, it was a debate needed to address how to protect them, and how they can protect themselves. It’s a grim question, but in a tough economic climate, and in the looming shadow of Amazon, how can we ensure that every one of the bookshops that celebrated IBW this year, is still open to see the celebrations next year?

Economics Foundation consultant Lindsay Mackie, who was also speaking during the evening, answered this question with a political perspective that  took in the whole banking scandal and hinted at the business practices of Amazon. She is quoted in the Bookseller saying:

“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…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.”

Mosse’s argument was also about money, as well as values:

“We should be saying we as a society think bookshops matter… 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.”

Anna Sebba, chair of the Society of Authors, weighed in on the issue of author’s linking to Amazon, which we covered on Moby Lives here, and suggested one easy way authors could help independent bookshops: “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.”

Perhaps the best attempt at practical advice came from Nic Bottomley who offered a 13 step guide to running an independent bookshop successfully, which the Guardian shared. It’s worth quoting in its entirety because it calls for booksellers to be bold, ambitious, continuously inventive, and damn good business people. It’s how every bookshop should be — and it’s 13 steps towards the future of independent book selling:

1. Do one thing differently every week.

2. Tell everyone what you’re doing. Tell customers what’s happening at your shop; tell publishers which of their books you’re selling hard; tell the press anything remotely interesting. It will come back to help you.

3. Never pay for advertising.

4. Copy good ideas from other geographically-distant independent businesses.

5. Inspire 10 book lovers every day; convert one book-agnostic every day.

6. Surround yourself with creative booksellers who love books as much as you and can wax on about them even more persuasively than you.

7. Use social media.

8. Use the time you were going to spend bitching about Amazon to work out, realistically, what your business needs from publishers. Tell the publishers.

9. Create a community. Hold events and book groups that are so good people will attend even if they’ve never heard of the author and that afterwards they’ll rave about to everyone they know.

10. Don’t give excellent customer service. Give extreme customer service – so that you become part of the fabric of your customers’ lives. They will do your advertising for you.

11. Sell e-readers now if you love them as much as physical books. If not, wait until the margins are plausible before you think about it and in the meantime carry on selling books.

12. Don’t buy stock from Amazon.

13. Be surprisingly cut-throat and financially driven when no one is looking; aim not to survive, but to thrive.



Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.