Book Smart: Why the independent bookshop is here to stay

The bookselling industry is subject to constant speculation. In a world where Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos reigns and tablet devices are a mainstay, one would be forgiven for assuming the end is nigh for independent booksellers’ success.

But despite the rise of retail giants and fall of book industry bigwigs, books are as important as ever in 2020. Just look at Margaret Attwood’s The Testaments, which sold over 250,000 copies within one month of its publication last September. Attwood’s cult status certainly gave the industry an end-of-year boost, but cult alone cannot sustain an entire industry. 

The book world recently reeled from the fall of The Book People, a leading bookseller that slipped into administration at the end of last year. Established in 1988, the retailer sold over 17 million children’s books each year, and was a mainstay at school book fairs and pop-up events. 

Amid “difficult” trading conditions, this simply wasn’t enough, and just last month the BBC reported that 155 jobs have been lost in the fallout. For some, it may be a reminder of the untimely demise of Borders. This international giant of the book world shocked many when it collapsed in 2010, and was another stark reminder that bookstores are not untouchable. 

But all is not lost. Just this week, Waterstones defied its former contemporaries by posting robust sales results, with revenue inching up 1.8%. But while larger retailers may be enjoying a renaissance of sorts, how are smaller businesses faring?

Amazon – The big bad wolf of the book world

For any independent retailer, the elephant in the room is Amazon. The retail giant goes from strength to strength, and most recently enjoyed “skyrocketing” sales over the Christmas period. Just last week, it was even named as one of the UK’s “most loved retailers”, with its “convenience” factor winning the hearts and minds of British consumers.

If that’s not enough, the retailer then did something of a 180-degree turn, and has now launched its very own chain of high street retail bookstores, Amazon Books. While there are only 18 current sites across the States, Amazon plans to continue on this path, and it could well make its way to the British high street scene in coming years. 

Vivien Godfrey, CEO of Stanfords, believes competitors like Amazon, or other online retailers, “pose a threat to the industry as we know it”. “I do think that purely online retailers do pose a threat because they have a lower cost base than booksellers who have a physical shop. In our physical shops our fixed costs per square foot are greater than those of online only retailers,” she adds. 

“But”, she says, “we also have knowledgeable staff to both help in our shops and to answer questions on the telephone. Fortunately, I believe that many UK consumers understand that if they only shop online, eventually physical bookshops will all disappear and our communities will be less rich as a result.” 

Jane Anger, from Five Leaves Bookshop, held similar sentiments when asked about online retailers. “Whilst high street shops pay taxes and business rates, Amazon does not pay anywhere near comparable rates”, she says. “I believe that last year Amazon paid in taxes what one Waterstones outlet might pay. Clearly large internet corporations drain money away from local economies without paying back in, whilst benefiting from the infrastructure paid for by taxpayers.

“That said, Amazon’s growing reputation for not treating staff well, avoiding taxes, as well as the impersonal nature of the business is well understood, and it brings us customers who want everything that Amazon is not.”

“Of course these retailers have an impact”, says Andrew Salmond, manager of London-based comic book store, “but independent stores can thrive by leveraging their strengths. Specialist knowledge, excellent customer service, community building and the physical browsing experience are not things which online retailers can easily replicate. Small businesses didn’t compete on price in the era of the bricks and mortar megastore and they don’t need to now.”

The charm and community of independent bookshops

While Amazon may bestride independent sellers in revenue, it is also clear that independent bookshops provide the intellect, charm and hospitality that is lacking from online retail giants. It is perhaps less surprising, then, to hear that over two dozen new independent bookshops opened in the UK, bringing the total membership of the Booksellers Association to 890 shops. According to research conducted by PWC, bookshops were also among the top five net risers of the high street in 2018. While 24 bookshops closed over the course of the year, 42 new ones opened. 

Despite the big bad wolf of the book world, Amazon, reigning supreme with sales, there is clearly still a market for independent bookstores in British towns. But what other factors keep these businesses appealing in an age of online giants? “Bookshops are ‘third places’, neutral spaces where one can meet people, have conversations as well as buy books”, says Anger. 

“A large part of our customer base actively seeks to avoid Amazon and understands the ‘use it or lose it’ issue when it comes to what they want in their community”, she adds. “We are engaged with our customers…We know what they like, and very often we know their names. It’s important.”

Salmond points to the personal touch. “The appeal of independent bookstores,” he says”, “lies in a mix of service, curation and personality. There is a strong, and welcome, movement toward supporting smaller business in the face of aggressive online and chain pricing. People see supporting small businesses as an ethical, community-forward choice.”

And indeed, a recent survey revealed that 63% of shoppers on the high street wanted to support independent businesses. The study, carried out by Cartwright Communications, revealed that almost 70% of high street shoppers would prefer to shop local, rather than resort to the likes of Amazon. The retail PR group said these findings suggest the desire to support independent retailers is “driving footfall” to the high street and “encouraging residents to shop in store, buy locally and receive customer service in person”.

“Customers come to independent bookshops because they want to browse in a welcoming and interesting retail environment”, adds Godfrey. “They want to have the opportunity to chat to knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff.” 

And these smaller bookshops are adapting their ways, using events, promotions and everything in between to keep attracting and intriguing customers. We run about 120 events a year, with authors from all areas: poetry, politics, environmental issues, LGBT+, fiction and more”, says Anger. “We are a place where people like to come and discuss issues, so we put on events that customers express an interest in as well as leading on that ourselves.” 

“We organize many author talks which almost always include a slideshow with interesting photos of places explored in the book being discussed”, adds Godfrey. “Customers want to attend author book reading events and neighbourhood book clubs at their local independent bookshop. Many customers also want their friendly independent bookshop to survive as a hub and resource for their community. We offer a physical place to visit and enjoy and be inspired.” 

The digital evolution 

The nostalgia of bookshops and their products is romantic, and the community they undoubtedly provide gives them an edge no online retailer could ever achieve. But the world around us is changing, and the digital age in which we live is changing the way people consume. With the rise of digital books, are these businesses still under threat in the 21st Century?

In many ways, digital books have done wonders for the industry as a whole. According to the Publisher’s Association, digital growth drove the value of the UK publishing industry to £6bn in 2018, despite a 5% drop in print book sales. Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the Publishers Association, says: “Investment in digital is paying off, driving growth and meeting reader demand to access books at any time in the format of their choice.” 

He notes that audiobooks have also grown “phenomenally”, as ever-increasing numbers of people opt to enjoy books in a “way that suits new technologies”. This may be good news for on-the-go consumers, but the falling sales of print books spells danger for independent retailers, who depend upon customers that like their books bound, not downloaded. 

Meanwhile, just a few months ago, The Times claimed that streaming television was “closing the chapter on novels”. The paper claimed that books were “struggling to compete with alternative forms of storytelling” as streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon continued to “pump billions of pounds into programming”. 

“One of the difficulties that fiction comes up against is the sheer pressure on people’s leisure time,” says Lotinga. “People make a choice between watching a Netflix box set or reading a novel.” And indeed, Netflix knows how to throw its weight around the ring of entertainment. At the time of publication, the platform has more than 167 million subscribers, and this figure will undoubtedly grow through the coming year. 

Business as usual

Despite the rise of digital and audiobooks, and the many outlets streaming instant entertainment straight to our screens, the booksellers we spoke with saw no real decline in business thus far. In fact, Anger believed that people, in general, were buying more books. “The sales of e-books plateaued some four years ago, and sales of print books have been going progressively upwards”, she says. 

Statista recently published data that examined consumer spending on books between 2008 and 2018. While print books took a slight dip in 2013, the figure has steadily risen since, and total spending in 2018 reached £3.6bn. Another study showed that the number of print books sold fell from 344 million in 2011 to 180 million in 2014, but this figure again rose steadily. In 2018, close to 191 million books were sold in the UK.

Looking to the future

It seems, then, the bookselling industry is in no imminent danger – it least not of the severity that many felt in the early part of the last decade. But what changes do these industry insiders believe the industry will face in 2020? Anger fears that Brexit, and consequent tariffs on paper, might push up the price of books.  Business rates were her main fear for the industry, however. “If landlords continue to raise rents, then independent businesses, including bookshops, will suffer”, says Anger. 

“I am optimistic that one positive change might occur which is a review of the way in which business rates are calculated. That might reduce the burden of these taxes on physical retail locations”, adds Godfrey. 

Overall, do they believe that the bookselling industry is resilient? “It is fairly resilient, but there is always the caveat of spiralling rents and rates”, says Anger. “More independent bookshops have opened in the last two years, and there seems to be a public that is willing to support bookshops on their high streets”. And how optimistic is she for the future of bookselling? “Booksellers, we’re always optimistic, often despite everything.”

“I am somewhat optimistic for the future of bookselling”, concludes Godfrey. “I know that authors will continue to write books and that publishers will publish books and that consumers will want to buy and read books. The unknown facts are the extent to which consumers will buy books from physical shops and not merely use them as places to browse for good ideas and then go online to buy them from an internet only retailer.” 

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