Speaking at the 2012 Booksellers’ Association conference I spelled out some of the challenges facing the independent bookseller on Britain’s High Streets, and provided a perspective on how these challenges might be met, in the form of a manifesto for High Street bookselling. You can run the Prezi presentation for yourself, from here.
“It’s well known that Britain’s High Streets face a ‘perfect storm’ from a mixture of poor economic conditions, the rampant growth of online retailing – and the move of supermarket retailers into non-food categories which used to be the preserve of the High Street. But like record shops before them, booksellers face an additional challenge – a sea-change in the way we consume the products that they sell, with consumer e-book sales increasing by 366% in the UK last year alone.
“The High Street’s problems are complex and there are many stakeholders to involve and appease. The Government review led by Mary Portas produced 27 clear recommendations – but, as Mary herself wondered at last week’s British Council of Shopping Centres conference, to what extent is the Government’s response just a piece of PR? Certainly, many commentators agree that the attention given to the Portas Pilots has generated welcome enthusiasm in towns beyond the 12 initial pilots chosen from nearly 400 bids, and kept the plight of High Streets in the public mind. However, many also agree that the largely ‘soft’ measures identified by Portas fail to get to the heart of the problem – not least represented by the high costs of conducting retail businesses in High Streets through continuing year-on-year increases in business rates and the attitudes of some intransigent landlords – the latter particularly affecting smaller retailers without the muscle to negotiate. Hard measures cost real money. And for all the talk of ‘community’, relatively few High Streets are part of genuine communities: we have to recognize that people can find their sense of belonging somewhere else.
“As far as booksellers are concerned, just like High Streets themselves, there are winners and losers. Just recently, High Street retailer WH Smith reported sales trends of books improving in the last year (even though this might only be the result of the ’50 shades of grey’ market!), whilst discount book retailer The Works claimed still to be ‘trading robustly from physical books’. Yet, in the meantime, the number of independent booksellers fell by 15% in the last two years.
“So what can booksellers, and particularly independent booksellers, do? Well, in some ways what the best of you are already doing.
“Choose your location and positioning wisely. If you are thinking of opening a bookshop or moving, find those areas above ‘high water’ where there are vibrant communities, reading groups, and where there is unmet demand. Position your brand to appeal to the parts of the market more mainstream offers cannot reach. General or special? Positioning involves offering desirable services (even including e-book services) as well as a mix of desirable products. The best bookshops have become distinctive, quirky places – worth travelling to, worth experiencing. The highly successful independent bookseller of the year, the Main Street Trading Company in St Boswell’s is witness to that.
“Partner well. This does not just mean huddling together defensively for warmth. Seek out like-minded independent retailers in town, within and across categories, and actively work together to promote your interests. Share good practice. Be prepared to take a lead. For example, Goldsmiths Row Book Market in Hackney every Sunday brings together an eclectic mix of local retailers selling collectables, new and second-hand, art design and anime, alongside radical titles.
“Embed yourself in the life of the town surrounding your High Street. Our research shows that independent retailers of all kinds can play an important role in sustaining a sense of community and that their role as a social hub is recognized and welcomed by the public. For booksellers, as we know, this is often manifested as becoming centres for cultural activity: hosting authors’ signings, reading groups and recommendation evenings. But this doesn’t need to happen in the bookshop. My local bookshop, The Woodstock Bookshop in Oxfordshire, reaches out to support local events (the poetry & literature festivals) and talks in nearby villages with product and advice, and offers discounts for local schools. It’s not alone.
“Continue to Innovate. Independent booksellers have an enviable record for innovation. Indeed, it’s hard to list an innovation in this talk, which hasn’t been thought of, tried and tested somewhere. And it doesn’t need to be a book. Forgive me for supporting another business local to me, but Patrick Neale [owner of Jaffe & Neale’s bookshop in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire] sells the best carrot cake in the country. Bar none.
“Embrace the change. This doesn’t mean giving in to the perfect storm I’ve described. Whilst there’s no magic bullet, it’s equally important to acknowledge the forces at work rather than hoping they will go away. Because they won’t. And shoppers will, ultimately, make the choices they want to make. Of course, independent booksellers can’t achieve this change alone. Publishers must play their part. Last year, Carolyn Reidy, the CEO of Simon & Schuster commented, ‘My No. 1 concern is the survival of the physical bookstore. We need that physical environment, because it’s still the place of discovery. People need to see books that they didn’t know they wanted.’ This has to be more than just empty rhetoric. Similarly, Government and landlords also need to recognize what is at risk in sacrificing the potential for rich and diverse High Streets for want of taking harder decisions involving real money because, as one independent bookseller recently blogged: ‘cultural value will not pay the rent ’. Yet they have to recognize that part of the cultural heritage at the heart of our communities is at stake.”
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