Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Independent Bookshops 'must …'

Advice to independent bookstores is offered by everyone.
There is the collective approach offered by Stephen Poulter, owner of Books@Hoddesdon who warned at LBF that independent retail is at risk unless shop owners unite to publicise their stores. Last April, he launched a "Love Your Local Bookshop" campaign and loyalty card scheme, now supported by wholesalers. But is the issue visibility? Does the local bookshop need visibility outside its catchments? How does being seen as part of a larger federation improve local visibility? There is merit here but it is not the silver bullet.

A number publishers are backing independents with various ‘support independents’ campaigns. Some offer better discounts, others semi exclusive stock, others a better interface but the question is whether these are merely fudging the discounts and muddling the available stock.

Others such as Michael Holdsworth offering some thought provoking words in his “High Noon on the High Street” article in the Bookseller’s LBF daily. It was a sobering wake up call and a gloomy picture of the potential impact of digitisation from someone who is well versed in digital matters as many academic and campus bookstore will tell you. Michael makes a very valid point when he states that certain genre will move quicker than others into digital and travel, religion, reference are clear areas where the consumer may want more than the tome.

Then today we read Michael Gove in The Times who believes the supermarkets are to blame. The lack of joined up thinking here makes one worry that the man is an MP. He is a serious used and rare book man and loves both stores and ABE but blames the dismiss of the independent on the supermarket? Clearly he doesn’t speak to the shop owners who did embrace ABE found a big market and although they also are held to ransom on commission and payment often find it cheaper to fulfil books out of the garage than a high maintenance store.

So who is right and who is wrong?

Generalists will continue to be picked off by the efficiencies and economies of scale of the likes of Amazon. Best sellers will always be cheaper at Tesco, Asda etc. Rare book dealers now sell more but their prices are in the open and falling as a result. Continuing to let publishers wallpaper shelves with their ‘best sellers’, ‘celebrity dross’ and the perennial ‘chick lit’ is a clear abdication of buying. Alan Giles has a point in his recent article on remainders but puts it across so badly and condescendingly, it dilutes any real message. Mail order is viable, as is the internet as are remainders, as is selling other stock such as stationary but these require different skills and aren’t just a simple offers.

Retailers need to recognise that the consumer seeks all books not just front list or new. What is clear is that innovative, hard working, open minded retailers such as the Countrybookshop will succeed and adapt. They and others have taken the bold steps to create experience, build loyalty and importantly sell books of all shapes, sizes and sources. Many can learn from what they are doing I building local community and visibility. It will not be right for all but they are certainly approaching the challenge with the same vigour they showed when establishing their successful internet store.

The independent bookstore is not dead but hopefully adapting to a changing and more demanding world.