By guest blogger Abigail Rhodes
The second guest blogger to contribute with an article to our growing series focused on independent bookselling is Abigail Rhodes from the UK. Abi has worked for the publishing imprint of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Spokesman Books, for six years now. She is involved in selling and marketing their books to independent booksellers throughout the UK and the world, alongside developing their website. She also keeps abreast of developments in the book trade within her job and a keen eye on the progress of eBooks technology. She writes regular book reviews for the journal The Spokesman and also happens to be an avid reader in her spare time. Besides her work at Spokesman Books she works as a freelance proof reader and copy editor for other independent book publishers in the Midlands. Her background in the publishing business has enabled her to approach the topic from a unique perspective and to offer noteworthy insights on the indies situation.
But we really shouldn’t lose heart. According to Valerie Glencross of Sevenoaks bookshop in an interview with Stephen Moss for The Guardian, the big chains are eating each other up. The huge discounts given to the most recent popular piece of fiction by supermarkets and online retailers are undermining big high street chains, such as Waterstone’s. By and large, bigger stores are finding themselves in difficulty as they fail to keep up with low prices offered elsewhere. However, the independent bookshop is still the smallest of the group and so will be eaten by the big shops even if they, in turn, are being eaten by bigger businesses. So what can be done? In this article I discuss my experience of how independents, like me, are staying afloat.
I work for the publishing imprint of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Spokesman Books, which is predominantly a publisher, but we sell our own products too. Currently we have no high street presence in the form of a bricks and mortar building but we do have a good online retail shop. “Online shop, how shocking!”, I hear you gasp. During my research for this piece I came across many voices citing the internet as one of the causes of the demise of the independent bookshop. Yet the more research I did, the further it became apparent that when the internet is mentioned what people are actually referring to is Amazon.co.uk.
This internet giant, which probably offers some of the biggest discounts in the market, is becoming a by-word for (book) shopping online in the same way Google has for search engines. When the average Joe thinks, “I need to buy a book” they will invariably head for Amazon (online) or Waterstone’s (in the high street). So what can be done about the situation? How can independent booksellers overcome these enormous retail powerhouses?
The first way is to join them, because it’ll be difficult to beat them. As an independent publisher, Spokesman Books is in a position to supply many wholesalers. However, they require big discounts that are only just sustainable. We no longer supply Waterstone’s directly because we are a small publisher and therefore the administration costs they incur far exceed the sales our titles generate. So in order to continue to make our books available to the public we go through Gardner’s to stock them. This does mean, however, that we are unable to determine exactly how many of our titles are adorning the shelves of Waterstone’s, because we simply supply a wholesaler with our titles and not any individual store. Recently we joined The Amazon Advantage programme, which is a good way for us to provide our titles directly to Amazon.co.uk, but once again the discount required is pretty hefty.
However, what I have described above isn’t possible for those who are selling books published by others, so my second suggestion is one that is already underway. Independent booksellers need to find a niche in the market, one that enables them to stand out from the big, indistinctive chain stores. If the average Joe’s mindset is to shop only in the big high street or online bookstores then independent shops need to break this habitual thought process and wake the average consumer up.
Our books here at Spokesman had a rare outing to stall at a local book festival held this June in Lowdham, Nottinghamshire. During the course of the day I spoke with the other stallholders, some of whom were local writers and publishers and some were bookshop owners. I asked these people how they were coping in the economic climate and how they are getting customers into their shops. The majority of replies focussed on similar themes – events and atmosphere. By holding regular book signings, readings, talks by authors and an annual small local festival the independent booksellers, in this small area of the Midlands, are grabbing people’s attention.
During my research for this article I discovered that this is endemic amongst independent booksellers across the UK. Some smaller shops, such as Mr B’s Emporium in Bath, have trading hours that suit their clientele and by opening late for ‘pre-dinner browsing’ on Thursdays and Fridays, they are attracting customers. Housman’s in London have a range of events that continue into the early evening and actively seek suggestions “from authors, artists and campaigners who want to use the shop for evening events.” News from Nowhere has a “free online community notice board”, which encourages local organisers to add their event to the website of Liverpool’s “radical and community bookshop”. I could list many, many more, but I want to consider the inclusive nature of these events.
Independent bookshops want customers to come to the shop, but not simply to buy the books they sell. They are encouraging an active participation by their local communities within their local communities, so the shops themselves become an integral part of the neighbourhood. In today’s individualistic society people look for a place to belong; they enjoy being a part of something alongside those that live around them. The big chains provide a service – they make it possible for people to purchase books – but do they enable the members of a community to interact with each other? My local big chain does have events and a coffee shop for their customers, but I always feel it is an anonymous place. The café is bland, expensive and exactly the same as all the others branches I have been to and, apart from the ‘local history section’, the shop tends not to encapsulate the essence of the place it trades in.
The heart of a shop is its customers – the real people that come in to chat and spend time, as well as money – and the independent booksellers know this. In my experience each small shop is unique because the owner/customer dynamic is unique, but the overarching atmosphere is always homely. The independently owned shops care about their customers in a more obvious and genuine way than their big chain rivals. By providing great customer (not consumer) service a sense of being cared for pervades the high street.
Whilst we at Spokesman Books don’t have a high-street shop in which to provide this atmosphere, we do share the ethos of great customer service and one patron was so happy he left us an amiable message on the wall of our Facebook group. As a publisher supplying books to both big chains and small independent shops I find the latter more accommodating and willing to communicate the ideas generated within the titles we sell. There is always a sense of ‘closed shop’ whenever I’ve approached my local branch of Waterstone’s with our book lists, yet when I contact shops like the London Review Bookshop or Bookmarks I always get an inclusive response.
I believe that the public also get more of a ‘come in and browse at your leisure’ invite from their local bookshop and I get the impression that people really do want to be a part of something stimulating, to belong to something that captures the imagination beyond the books themselves and beyond the banality of the chain. So, by providing an inspiring and caring environment within their bookshops the independents draw people in, and by creating a culture, or identity, independent bookshops are not only becoming a part of everyday life for shoppers, they are also creating a space for people to enjoy books outside of their own homes.
My final answer to the question ‘what can be done?’ is framed by the need to raise awareness of the situation in which small bookshop owners find themselves. In late January this year The Guardian ran the article, “MP calls on government to protect struggling independent booksellers”, which outlined the response by Nigel Evans, Conservative MP for the Ribble Valley, to the closing of Kaydee, a local bookshop in his constituency. He tabled early day motion 493 ‘Small Businesses’, which called upon the Government to, ‘ensure that small and medium-sized businesses get the support that they both need and deserve in order that they may survive the recession.’ It received only eight signatures. However, it has renewed the interest of the media and sought to elucidate the plight within Parliament.
Much more can, and should, be done to keep small, independent bookshops alive and when I saw The Bookstore Guide’s decision to write a series of articles looking into the current predicament of independent book selling I was inspired. Ivan and Sonja have begun an invaluable discussion that in itself is helping to raise awareness, and which might just be the beginning of a positive turn for us independents.
 Information taken from ‘MP calls on Government to protect struggling independent booksellers’ by Alison Ford, The Guardian, 22 January 2009.
 Stephen Moss on Independent Bookshops, The Best Sellers, The Guardian, May 22nd 2006.
 Please note that we also supply many independent bookshops across the UK and internationally with our titles.
 We supply philosophical, political, economic, peace and human rights and nuclear disarmament titles.
 Alison Flood in The Guardian, January 22nd 2009.
2: Waterstone's in Brussels (Bookstore Guide archive)
3: The Red Wheelbarrow in Paris (Bookstore Guide archive)
4: Village Voice Bookshop in Paris (Bookstore Guide archive)
More articles from this series:
An Insight into the Current State of Independent Bookselling – An Introduction
Independent Bookstores in Danger of Extinction – Who is to Blame?
Independent Booksellers and the Fixed Book Price: a Horror Story?
Chain Bookstores: The Rise, Struggle and Downfall?
An Interview with an Antiquarian Bookseller: The Caretaker
Literaturhaus: Books, Words and Much Much More
Back to the full list of Articles