What’s the situation for indie booksellers in Britain?

Part of the Ribbonfish spotlight on bookshops.
In recent months, we’ve seen a remarkable event; the recovery of physical book sales, and the plummeting of Amazon’s Kindle. Not many in the mainstream media saw this coming, having repeatedly predicted the imminent death of the book altogether.
The leader of Waterstones, James Daunt, has been a flag-bearer for the physical bookstore, and his turnaround of the bookselling Goliath is a remarkable feat. By instilling the principles of local independent bookselling into his UK-wide chain of stores, the management at Waterstones has nurtured an audience that is committed to the brand, but most importantly; an audience that buys the books that they sell.
This article by Stephen Heyman on Slate provides a comprehensive overview of the steps he took to achieve this, and it’s well worth a read when you have ten minutes.
So, given that the largest chain has taken this route, are indie bookshops getting back to where they belong, too? Perhaps the worst is over, but challenges still remain. I spoke to the good people at London Review Bookshop for our latest Publishing Focus interview, with bookshop manager Natalia de la Ossa commenting;
“There is no one answer for all independent bookshops. Every bookshop has to adapt to what their customers want. Independent shops have felt pressure to diversify and offer more for their customers. Whether or not they choose to has a lot to do with location, loyalty, what they already offered and their existing customer base.”

Fighting the good fight

Author James Patterson launched an admirable initiative to help indie bookshops survive and thrive. Over the past few years, his grants have made a difference to hundreds of independent stores in the UK and US. In 2016, he won the Outstanding Contribution to the Book Trade Award at the British Book Industry Awards.
Whilst this endeavour has helped many, it’s reflective of a sorry situation that’s developed over the past decade for British booksellers, and one that isn’t disappeared with the gradual improvement of physical book sales.
In 2014, the number of independent bookshops in Britain was reduced to below one thousand for the first time in the modern era, with the loss of around five hundred over the course of a decade. The chains suffered, too.
We saw the demise of Borders in the UK in 2009, with its US-based operation finally succumbing in early 2011. It was clear that the changing consumer habits was impacting on both sides of the Atlantic. Overall, the number of chain outlets in the US fell from 3,293 to 2,206 between 1991 and 2011.
Remarkably, between 2009 and 2016, the number of independent booksellers in the USA increased by 27%, and in France the numbers increased by 5%. This is in stark contrast to the downward trend in the UK and Ireland, where there has been a fall of 25%.
The growth in America over these years is accredited to booksellers filling the gap left by the big guns (Borders et al), and according to The New York Times, independents are benefiting from “a spirit of localism and urban renewal that is coursing through some American cities.”
In other European countries, fixing the price on new books has protected the indies from supermarket discounts; a law which existed in the UK until the mid 1990s, when it was overturned and abandoned. A seminal moment, indeed.

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A brighter future?

Given the positive figures for physical book sales, are independent booksellers out of the most challenging period that the industry’s ever seen? Indeed, it’s a remarkable turnaround, and the prospects for bookstores are surprisingly bright – but it’s still difficult times, especially for indies.
In an interview with the Guardian, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones talks about a the purported “renaissance” in independent bookselling.
“Momentum is back on the high street and being led by very well established and very good booksellers who have had to learn the new skills to compete in the market place.”
The integration of technology may also strengthen the position of independent sellers. Platforms such as Ooovre and apps like NearSt are helping people find the books they want from local retailers, but the success of these projects requires the buy-in from different bookselling parties; those which are inherently independent and varied in their outlook. And most importantly, they need buy-in from customers.
Patterson’s grants, as mentioned earlier, enable cash-strapped independent bookstores to reach out to the local community with events, invest in marketing initiatives, and improve their interiors to draw in more customers. This support is imperative in such a competitive marketplace, as supermarkets and chains will also have their sights on the print upturn.
Essentially, we’re looking at a situation where many independent bookstores are still closing across the UK, but the rate has gradually slowed. Things are starting to level out after a tumultuous decade, but indies need to persevere through the remaining tough times. eBooks are here to stay, as are online behemoths like Amazon. So too, are the discounting supermarkets, unless legislation is passed to prevent their aggressive tactics.
In general, numbers of independent retail stores has increased annually for the past six years, whilst less agile stalwarts such as BHS, HMV, and Debenhams fall by the wayside. There’s no smugness to be enjoyed from this trend as it incorporates thousands of job losses, but the strengthening of independent retailers’ position may help to distribute influence and risk for future generations, and bring a new vibrant environment to our high streets.
In a post-digital world, the influence of eBooks will continue to be felt by publishers and booksellers alike. But there has been a shift. This is summed up perfectly in a final word from Oren Teicher of the ABA, who was interviewed for a Guardian feature on independent bookselling in the US;
“Five years ago in the American book business, there was a widespread panic that somehow digital reading was going to replace physical books and they would be a relic of some other time and place. Fast forward to today, and I think digital reading has levelled off and calmed down slightly. It’s going to be a piece of our business, but print books aren’t going away. We’re living in a hybrid world.”
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