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Like a lot of things in life, a balanced position is the ideal and the bricks and mortar book market is no exception. Too many competing bookstores, chasing a finite amount of customers will mean the potential book spend is spread too thinly for everyone to get a decent slice of the action. One of the Holy Grail’s in retailing is to expand market share, without increasing overheads – result increase in profits. A few news items over the last few weeks illustrate these issues – one which could help our children’s indies and the other could adversely affect the fragile balance on the high street.
Head teachers at two secondary schools have asked their local children’s indies to set up ‘pop up ‘ bookshops in an effort to encourage pupils to buy books and forge the habit of reading. I am sure this will be a welcome expansion for Tales on Moon Lane and Boooka. There will presumably be lower margin on the books sold through these new ventures ( the schools will want their cut) but no extra investment in infrastructure and low overheads mean that they could be a great way to increase sales for these businesses. From the schools’ perspective, children are introduced to the idea of choosing and buying their own books and thus nurturing readers and book buyers of the future. These Head teachers obviously value the professionalism and expertise of their local indies and have chosen to partner with them over bigger players, which is encouraging. A pop up shop by definition is ‘short term retail space’ but hopefully Tales and Booka will find them profitable ventures and a good way to expand sales, and these school shops will develop into something more permanent. Like all things in business it will depend on the numbers.
Over in Seattle, Amazon’s long rumoured foray into bricks and mortar retailing has become a reality. Pictures of the store’s interior shows an all face out display of books and a carefully selected stock chosen from the vast amount of online data which anyone who has bought anything on Amazon has happily given them with a mountain of reviews to boot. I have to say the pictures do indicate an attractive shopping experience, particularly if you are a novice book buyer who is not looking for depth of stock.
The news of Amazon opening its first physical bookstore has been met with mixed reactions from the UK book trade – rather predictably, most indies are dismayed by the idea of Amazon bricks and mortar stores whilst publishers are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of selling more books. I think the spectre of Amazon arriving on UK high streets is certainly something for both indies and the chains to fear and possibly publishers should be thinking longer term than the early increase in sales they might achieve before the inevitable bookstore closures that would follow. For this behemoth of the book trade to gain a greater market share is in no one’s best interest. As for other high street retailers, a click and collect model could seriously damage other sectors and Amazon already have the infrastructure in place to roll this out.
For the big players,the UK retail book landscape seems to have settled over the last 15 years. The demise of Borders, Ottakers, Hammicks and Books Etc, has left Waterstones as the only countrywide chain alongside London players Foyles and Daunts. Strong indies are surviving by working extremely hard and being super creative but should Amazon decide that the bricks and mortar model is profitable they will not hesitate to roll it out over here with I fear, disastrous consequences for competing physical bookshops. The arrival of high street Amazon stores on these shores could prove catastrophic for both indies and chains. Too many players and there just isn’t enough to go around.
Any bibliophile visiting Paris will be struck by the large number of bookshops in the city ranging from vibrant generalists to foreign language specialists. Compared to the UK, France has roughly triple the number of bookshops, despite being a mere 23 miles away and one would think, suffering from the same difficulties that cause our independents to struggle here such as high commercial rents and Amazon. So what is happening across the channel to facilitate such a seemingly a thriving indie book trade?
In 1995, the year I signed the lease on premises from which to start my own indie, The Golden Treasury children’s bookshop, the net book agreement in the UK collapsed. Under pressure from a few big publishing houses and supermarkets who were keen to be able to discount books, the agreement which had ensured retail price maintenance in the book trade, evaporated overnight. Critics of the agreement felt it was an outdated , anti competitive device but it certainly worked in favour of independent bookshops, a fact that did not go unnoticed by French legislators. In the early 80’s they recognised that their beloved indies were struggling and lost no time in passing the Lang Act – essentially a French NBA. When the threat from online retailers began to loom the Lang Law was extended to online book sales and in 2014, what is referred to as the ‘anti Amazon’ law was passed to prevent online retailers offering free delivery. This week Sarah Chayes book Thieves of State will set you back £17.81 on Amazon fr., £14.88 on Amazon UK and a mere £12.60 on Amazon.com Unlike the US and UK, French booksellers have more than one professional body safeguarding their interests. The most important being the Centre National du Livre (CNL) who have a multi million euro budget to distribute to bookshops for development and also support a scheme whereby bookshops can be awarded special status as bookshops of excellence, enabling them to qualify for tax breaks and interest free loans to develop their businesses.
Not that French booksellers are complacent about their future. Despite helpful legislation and powerful trade bodies they know there are threats looming from ebooks and the low wage structure that abounds in independent retailing which could threaten their businesses. The Plan Livre which aims to completely overhaul the industry and address some of these issues has been put together by a group of radical French booksellers in an effort to stem the tide.
Latest HMRC records show that Amazon paid a mere £11.9 million in UK tax on £5.3 billion UK sales in their last tax year. I know many independents run advertising campaigns to actively discourage customers from buying on Amazon however the French have gone further. They have actively sort to skew the playing field in favour of their indies, something that indies on this side of the channel can but only dream. It seems to me that the French sincerely value their bookshops in a way that perhaps we don’t in this country where many book buyers know the price of everything but the value of nothing and merely use their local bookshops as showrooms.
I am sure independent bookshop owners will be assessing how the recent Budget will impact on their businesses. How will the introduction of a new Living Wage and reductions in employer’s NI and Corporation Tax affect their profit and loss? Trying to control an aggressive competitor like Amazon through legislation might be a bridge too far on this side of the Channel, and whilst some businesses may feel the benefit of George Osborne’s Budget it would be great if government were able to show some targeted help for our indies and acknowledge that they are an important part of our culture. Or better still a governmental /publishing industry initiative ? Philip Gwyn Jones explored the subject of where all the money is going in the book trade at this year’s LIBF. The large publishing houses are making record profits whilst the rest of the trade struggles. Based on an article ‘ Indie bookshops alive and well in Paris’ by Sousan Hammad published on Al Jazeera May 2014