From London Book Fair: European Booksellers on Brexit

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The pandemic’s effects on bookselling have been mingled with those of Brexit, as booksellers from Uppsala and Galway tell the European and International Booksellers Federation.

Jan Smedh’s English Bookshop location in Stockholm. Image: English Bookshop

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Supply and Demand Under Pressure
As our Publishing Perspectives readers know, the digital edition of London Book Fair, just closed, included a series of topical programming events, one of them looking at the question, “How Has Brexit Impacted the Bookselling Trade So Far?”

It’s an interesting question, and the input of two seasoned booksellers and stire owners, one in Sweden, the other in Ireland, is helpful because the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has tended to eclipse news of Brexit’s effects. Even if you operate in the European or United Kingdom’s industry, you’ll know that the British withdrawal from the European Union and various implementation effects were topics quickly overtaken by outbreaks of the contagion.

But what should not be missed is the ominous news reported by the BBC on June 18, when the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF) released its Q1 report (PDF): Export sales to the European Union fell by almost half, at 47 percent, in the first quarter of this year.

“All of the UK’s top 10 products exported to the EU fell significantly in value from 2019 to 2021,” the FDF’s findings showed, “with whisky dropping 32.3 percent, chocolate 36.9 percent and lamb and mutton 14.3 percent. Dairy products have been most severely impacted. Compared to 2020, exports of milk and cream to the EU have fallen by more than 90 percent, and exports of cheese by two thirds in the same time period.”

A theme voiced by merchants in BBC’s interviews was echoed in the London Book Fair discussion: the inability to move goods quickly onto the Contintent. And another theme: the complications of the pandemic. Despite the shorter term effects from the coronavirus, however, officials talking to the news network are alarmed at “the scale of losses that UK manufacturers face in the longer-term due to new trade barriers with the EU.”

Another factor mentioned by the FDF and heard in the comments of bookseller Tomás Kenny in Ireland is stockpiling done before the advent of the Brexit-driven changes. In the case of Kennys Bookshop, this didn’t prevent a serious problem of inventory management.

Highlights of the London Book Fair Seminar

In the session for London Book Fair (originally streamed on June 22), Julie Belgrado, director of the European and International Booksellers Federation, hosted comments from Swedish bookseller Jan Smedh, who owns the English Bookshop in Uppsala, with a location in Stockholm, as well, and Ireland’s Tomás Kenny, general manager at Kennys Bookshop in Galway.

What we’ll do here is grab selected parts of Smedh’s and Kenny’s comments, referring you to the full session, which should be available on demand until July 16 with others from London Book Fair’s online programming from Reed Exhibitions. In the comments we capture here, some of the interstitial remarks have been edited so that we can distill things down to key points.

London Book Fair’s seminar series, it should be noted, is very cleanly delivered in its on-demand sessions. The playouts have attractive frames and run smoothly. There’s some judicious editing of the video in place, and this session is a welcome 25 minutes long, excellent timing for busy publishing professionals who can’t manage to find a big block in the day to review it.

Tomás Kenny, Kennys Bookshop, Galway

Tomás Kenny. Image: London Book Fair

Tomás Kenny starts by explaining that the bookstore is his family’s business, opened in 1940. “I’m the third generation,” he says, “and the fourth generation is currently out there packing books.”

And then he drops a very compelling fact into his comments: “We were the second bookshop in the world online,” he says, “in 1994, and we’re the oldest” bookshop to have opened an e-commerce evocation of itself “still in existence.”

As it turns out, the fact that Kennys is online means that “a huge amount of our business is exports. The last 12 to 14 months have been very hard to grasp for everyone, and for us as well. The effects of Brexit were felt from January 1 of this year. It was very hard to prepare for it because COVID was so difficult and took up so much of our time.”

It’s likely, he says, that 80 to 90 percent of the books sold in Ireland are published in the UK. “We have our own publishing industry here, lots of fantastic publishers, but an awful lot of the big Irish writers are published with UK imprints.

“Every day, we’d normally get approximately 30 deliveries from the UK. And when Brexit happened, nobody knew what to expect. But we didn’t get one delivery until the 22nd or 23rd of January. It was a disaster. We didn’t have anything coming in. It started to improve in February, but we still had enormous issues with the average time of shipping. It was about three to four days longer than it would have been in 2020 and earlier.

“The biggest problem so far is the lack of certainty. We have no idea when we order something when that thing will arrive.”Tomás Kenny, Kennys Books

“Similarly, I suppose the consistency was gone. If we ordered from Gardners, it used to take 48 hours from the time we ordered to the time it would arrive here. Now it was anybody’s guess when it would arrive, and if it would arrive. Shipments would all arrive together and they wouldn’t be complete. We might get in 30 boxes on a given day, but it might be from five or six different days, so trying to match our invoices was next to impossible.

“So it’s very, very, very frustrating, and that’s the biggest problem so far, the lack of certainty. We have no idea when we order something when that thing will arrive.”

In addition, both the UK and Ireland have VAT-free regulatory standing for books, but “What a lot of the couriers are doing is charging the VAT directly to us and then informing Irish Revenue that they’ve done that to try to make it as seamless as possible. But they’re charging us VAT when there should be no VAT. That was happening in February and March. It seems to have stopped. Things do seem to be getting better, but we’re still having very severe issues occasionally, and the average time has gotten a lot worse.

“We did what we could in December. We stockpiled as much as we could of books coming out in January because we knew this was going to be a problem. But I don’t think anybody anticipated how much of a problem it was going to be and how long the problem would continue.

“We buy all the cardboards to wrap our books” from online sales “and that’s gone up in price hugely in the last six months, by about 30 percent. So we’re now looking to mainland Europe to see if there are alternatives.

“So we’re nervous,” Tomás Kenny says. “The amount of material coming through the port in Dublin is a fraction of what it would have been from the UK a year ago. We’re concerned that as shops open and [business] increases,” the problems of supply for rising demand will be even greater. Even in pre-Brexit times, Kenny says, there were inventory issues at Christmas.

Fulfilling online orders in Galway, where cardboard for shipping is running 30 percent higher. Image: Kennys Bookshop

Jan Smedh, English Bookshop, Uppsala and Stockholm

Jan Smedh in Sweden notes that there’s been a tradition of English-language bookstores in many parts of Europe and that when he opened his company in 1995, it was the first such store in Scandinavia. In 25 years and now with two stores, he says, “The interest has been fantastic.”

“We sell only English-language books and we buy them mostly from the UK, maybe 75 percent from the UK and 25 percent from the United States. Importing books has always been what we do. That puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that logistics, for us, have to work.

“We’ve always used a shipping agent in the UK to process our goods. All the publishing houses in the UK and the US send their books to our agent in Essex. They put all the boxes on pallets on Friday and then drive them across to us in Uppsala over the weekend and we have delivery on Mondays. That’s the way it’s pretty much always worked.

“That has been an advantage for us in these changes, because they”—the shipping agent’s people—”are masters of logistics and they had planned for this and followed all the legal developments to make sure we knew what documentation was needed and the publishers in the UK and US knew what was needed.”

“One thing that has affected us in Sweden is that the private importing of books by people in Sweden from the UK has become much more difficult because of customs.”Jan Smedh, English Bookshop

While some merchants have encountered problems, he says, “For us, basically it’s meant that our deliveries are 24 hours later than they used to be. We get deliveries now on Tuesdays because they have to clear customs in Malmö in the south of Sweden. We also of course pay the import VAT, the sales tax, now, but that’s more of a cash-flow thing than a cost.

“The pandemic has had more of an effect because of how warehouses in the US and the UK have been staffed during the pandemic. It’s taken longer for orders to get processed.

“But one thing that has affected us in Sweden is that the private importing of books by people in Sweden from the UK has become much more difficult because of customs. Everything has to be declared and there’s a fee and they’re charged VAT for anything they import on their own. So we’ve been having more and more people come to us to place orders through us instead of buying direct, themselves. Even though the price might be lower in the UK, by the time they get the book, it’s costing a lot more. So it’s more efficient to go through us because we have these channels set up. That’s a surprising effect.

“A negative effect for us that’s irritating is that publishers in the UK and US have always sent us proofs, reading copies and galleys and catalogues through the post. And that has been a real problem since Brexit because all those packages get stuck and we’re sent multiple letters asking us to pay customs fees on these things, even though they have no value. That’s really a glitch. We don’t know how to get those anymore.

“Our business has grown 15 to 20 percent during the pandemic. A lot of people have turned to the value of supporting a local shop as a hub of quality and service. People are thinking more about what really matters, a shift in value with customers.”

Jan Smedh. Image: London Book Fair

Elda Lamberti, Gardners, UK

The session includes comments from Elda Lamberti, international sales manager for the UK-based Gardners Books wholesaler.  She points out that because Gardners has long been in international channels, “All the documentation was there,” and operating in a new cross-borders setting was, in that way, not such a jolt.

Elda Lamberti

The difficulties Gardners has run into, she says, were thus not internal to the company but to shipping and courier partners.

“We were told by some of them that they were perfectly ready for Brexit,” she says. “In the end, some of them were not.”

Lamberti advises that a big task for booksellers now is to “manage their customers’ expectations.

“Unfortunately, we live in a world where waiting for something is almost a bad word,” she says. “People don’t want to wait. People are used to buying something and having it the following day. That’s no longer the case.

“So my suggestion is manage your customers’ expectations. Because this will help you a lot.”

The Brexit panel during some live Q&A at the end of the session, moderated by the European and International Booksellers Federation’s Julie Belgrado. Image: London Book Fair

More from Publishing Perspectives on London Book Fair is here, more from us on the United Kingdom’s market is here, more on Brexit is here, more on Europe is here, and more on bookselling is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.