Should Publishers Open Bookshops? London’s Book Industry Conference, Day 1

In Global Trade Talk by Edward Nawotka

By Roger Tagholm

LONDON: Curatorship and discoverability -– these were the buzz terms at the UK’s Book Industry Conference (BIC) which opened on Monday in King’s Cross, London.  Speakers representing independent shops on both sides of the Atlantic emphasized how good bricks and mortar bookshops are at “curating” a vibrant stock perfectly tailored to their community, while both said that one of the key ways in which physical bookshops can win in the battle against the online giants is in their ability to act as a huge shop window. Put simply, more books are discovered in bookshops than they are on Amazon.

Independents’ Erosion Ending, But Digital Still a Frenemy

Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), was probably more optimistic than the UK’s Jane Streeter, President of the Booksellers Association (BA). “In the US, all the indications are that independents have recovered,” he said. “The steep decline that we had been seeing has halted. Some 400 independents have opened since 2005 and for the second year running our numbers have increased.  While our overall market share is still modest, the erosion of our market has stopped.

“I do believe that there is potential for growth, despite all the change ahead. The lifeblood of independents is curation and serendipity -– the combination of passionate handselling and curated selection has led to a recovery.  There is an independent bookstore renaissance fuelled by young entrepreneurs.”

ABA's Oren Teicher

He said that independents shouldn’t be afraid of e-books and that he didn’t think print books would go away. “The agency model has created opportunities through levelling the playing field. More booksellers are joining the Google e-books model every month. It means we can now compete in the areas we do best –- knowledge and passion.”

Streeter, who runs the Bookcase, an independent in Lowdham, Nottingham, issued a plea for “booksellers and publishers to sit down and talk about where we want to be.” She said that “the economics for booksellers don’t work. Booksellers need to be seen as real partners in digital.  The costs are too high, the margins are too low. The current commercial model is not giving high street booksellers the support they need.”

The Bookcase's Jane Streeter

She noted the visibility for publishers’ books that physical bookshops offer. “If bookshops disappear, how will publishers reach the market? There is a new breed of 21st century independent now –- community minded, evangelical. We have a vital role to play in discoverability. When visibility goes, sales decline.”

This point was illustrated by Teicher who pointed out that music sales in 2000 -– before the dominance of iTunes and when there were still physical music stores in the US -– were three times what they are today. A salutary lesson there for the book industry.

Should Publishers Open Bookshops as Before?

Streeter is someone who likes to get things done, likes action. Asked by Publishing Perspectives for any hint of what she would like to see in the months ahead she said: “We need more bookshops. There used to be a Penguin chain, a Dorling Kindersley shop…the publisher Persephone Books has a shop in London.” Is she suggesting that publishers should open shops? “Well, what I want to is speak with leading publishers after the conference and ask them what they want.”

What Streeter certainly wants is to be involved in digital, but some UK indies are holding back. Patrick Neal, who runs one of the best indies –- Jaffe & Neal in the picture postcard village of Chipping Norton (there is nothing like English village names) –- is keen on digital, but hasn’t taken the plunge yet “because the IT side is so difficult and there are issues with digital wholesalers not being able to supply us as a third party because of the agency agreement –- it’s complicated. That’s why we’re waiting for Google”.

Mr. Byng, I presume...

Cameron Crow, who looks after events at Waterstone’s Newcastle, issued a familiar plea. No, not “somebody buy us, please,” but a request that publishers spread out their titles over the year. He was supported by Rececca Hart, buyer at Foyles in London. “January is a great month to launch a book because there is no competition,” Crow said. Convincing publishers on this one is always going to be hard, though.

Now renamed the Book Industry Conference, for years this event was “the BA Conference” and had a kind of legendary status in the UK. It roamed from city to city –- with occasional forays to Ireland and Europe -– rather in the way the old ABA Convention roamed the US. But with the downturn and the increasing pressures on booksellers, the three day affair was deemed too long, and has now been slimmed down. It has to be noted that there weren’t many booksellers in attendance, a sign that few want to take the time away from the shop or meet the expense of the conference and the trip to London. Hence it being renamed the Book Industry Conference, rather than the booksellers’ conference, to more accurately reflect the audience.

In one small moment of consternation, Jon Slack who organizes the South Asian Literary Festival, raised the tricky issue of whether authors should be paid for appearances. He put this to a panel of publicists and authors, among them the novelist Patrick Neate who runs London’s Bookslam events. It was Neate who had the best answer. “Basically, if you’re a poet you get paid. Their contracts are so lousy…”

Lastly, it was a good day for Canongate’s Jamie Byng who is shortly to bring his extraordinary mane of hair to the BEA where he is spreading the word about World Book Night. The latter initiative was so successful in the UK that, unsurprisingly, he was given the Gerry Davies Award for an outstanding contribution to the industry over the past year. The award is named after a former Director of the BA and a past President of the International Booksellers Federation who died in 2004.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.