The Independent Bookshop Alliance

Thursday 29th March 2018 will be marked in history as the day booksellers began to change the world. Lord John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, officially launched the Alliance of Independent Bookshops, hosting a discussion between booksellers, authors, publishers, societies and other interested parties at the House of Lords, Westminster. Several bookshops, including CCB, joined the meeting to discuss the issues arising and practical options for the future of bookshops.

The Indie Alliance was proposed in January this year in a blog post by Big Green Bookshop owner Simon Key, prompted by the exclusive Waterstones Philip Pullman Book of Dust deal, which also raised the issue of special editions, authors tours and the deep discounting of books to large chains, especially Amazon. Simon suggested that independent booksellers unite to stand up to ‘the big man’ and that as an independent alliance would be able to negotiate for better deals from publishers….which received a prompt and positive response from over 130 booksellers.

The meeting was opened by Lord Bird and Simon Key who both emphasised that the discussion was intended as a space for opinions and ideas to be expressed and intended to leave the day with the next steps in mind.

Lord Bird, who warned the government about the damage of illiteracy across Britain and the crisis facing public libraries and independent bookshops in 2016, backed the plan with a Westminster launch that also attracted authors, publishers and wholesalers.

“To me, a town, village or city is empty without the power of a bookshop,” he said. “The power to turn a high street into something that holds a vast social echo. That, through its increasing presence, will be full of readings, discussions, and (at times) nice cups of tea.

“That is why we have to fight for bookshops. Every last one is precious to us, our quality of our life, our literature, our public spaces and communities. We have to do whatever is humanly possible. That is why – from book thief to bookshop defender – I am in love with the new initiative called the Independent Bookshop Alliance. And I was pleased to bring them to parliament to launch their initiative.

“We must protect and proactively help these centres of social good. We must try and get communities to adopt them, for local authorities to see them as a plus in their boroughs and cities, for publishers to see them as equals. And we must link this fight to the battles to save our libraries and also to enhance schools’ campaigns to make more of our children literate”.

Opening reflections highlighted the value of Independent bookshops which are seen as a barometer of the health of the High Street. Independent booksellers know their customers, stock , support authors and illustrators, and (alongside libraries) they promote reader development and literacy opportunities to schools and colleges.

Darren Henley, CEO Arts Council England, talked of bookshops as place-making centres of culture and cultural activites. “Bookshops are to readers what galleries are to art lovers”.

Ben Aaronovitch (author of the Rivers of London urban fantasy series) said “Independent book shops are very important. You need people who know what they’re doing and you form attachments to independent bookshops. “We need an ecology that promotes a variety of ideas. We’ll regret losing them and libraries if we let them go.”

Andrew Franklin, the co-founder of publisher Profile Books, said “as a publisher we benefit hugely from independent bookshops. I’m wholly in favour of this alliance. As a publisher, we support it.” He also talked about the Alliance of Independent Publishers, created by a group of independent publishers in response to the challenges of a changing marketplace.

Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers Association, added “Independent bookshops in communities are frequently community heroes. We urge government to fix problems the independent bookshops face on the high street.” She spoke of the creative thinking and hard work required to make this alliance a reality.

Baroness Gail Rebuck, Random House Group chair and Labour peer, also praised the alliance and said: “This [alliance] is very timely. The role of bookshops in isolated areas is so important for bringing communities together.”

Mandy Powell, CILIP, emphasised the importance of bookshops and libraries in the current age and the desperate need for trusted sources of recommendations and information.

Jo McCrum, Society of Authors, raised the importance of education to raise consumer awareness about aspects of the process of buying cheap books and the importance of informed sustainable consumer choices.

Sam Missingham spoke of her personal connection to high street shops, the importance of accessibility and community. Read her full speech over at Lounge Marketing.

All agreed than an Independent Bookshop Alliance is a positive step forward and that the lobbying power of bookshops together could be of huge benefit to both authors and publishers and the sustainability of the book industry as a whole.

A summary of the biggest issues facing Independent Booksellers were as follows:

Deep discounting

As Amazon and large chains gain increasing power over publishers, their influence and discounts are greater and they are able to sell some titles more cheaply than bookshops can buy them wholesale. The example cited was the latest Jamie Oliver cookbook with an RRP of £26.00 but can often be found in supermarkets for as little as £9.00 (less than independents can buy it for). Independent bookshops cannot compete on price and many booksellers remembered fondly the days of the Net Book Agreement.

Exclusive Deals

Many booksellers were united in wanting to negotiate exclusive deals for Indies, similar to the Waterstones exclusive on Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust which was the catalyst for the Alliance.

Partnerships

Darren Henley stated that one of Arts Council England’s priorities is to build partnerships with independent bookshops and support literature as an art form.

Rates & Taxes

Some physical bookshops are paying up to 17 times more in business rates than the Amazon warehouse down the road. This issue is significant and with increasing government cuts is likely to continue for all independent high street shops despite the fact they create social cohesion through the process of serving their communities.

Location of Bookshops and Author Events

Many booksellers at the discussion were London-based. Those who weren’t brought up the difficulty in getting authors to attend events in their bookshops and discussed the need for a cost effective way to enable author visits to other locations.

Online Selling

There was some discussion about the best way for independent bookshops to utilise online selling opportunities going forward.

Looking ahead the discussion highlighted several possible actions to take forward:

Publishers – can offer exclusive deals to indies for some titles. Can organise author event outside of London, aided by the organisation of clusters of bookshops. It was suggested that books should not be sold at discounts until 6 months after their publication date to encourage a level playing field.

Bookshops – can work together to create a database of indie bookshops for exclusive deals and bookshop ‘clusters’ for author visits. The Independent Alliance has begun to gather lists of titles they would to have as exclusive deals and have begun to discuss these with publishers.

Educators – can encourage ethical purchasing choices by providing accessible information for consumers about the effects of deep discounts and cheap book buying on authors, illustrators and independent booksellers.

Authors – bestselling authors can play a huge part in helping bookshops by expressing a desire to work with indies which will encourage publishers to seek out opportunities in this area.

Policy Makers – can consider better business rates for bookshops as a provider of social cohesion and social benefit.

We actively support moves to create a sustainable book industry for authors, illustrators, publishers and booksellers…. watch this space!

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