Independent Bookshops: Selling by the Book

Article  by  Samuel MILLER  •  Published 23.10.2011  •  Updated 24.10.2011
[NEWS] Independent UK retailers of print books are facing difficult choices as digital technologies and giant discounters edge in on the market.

As the Internet and its attendant digital technologies have made commercial viability more difficult for traditional record labels and stores, so they have for independent bookshops. But these small bricks-and-mortar outlets are also being adversely affected by the growth of mammoth discount chains and supermarkets, which operate on economies of scale, according to figures published over the last three years by the Booksellers Association of England and Ireland.
Figures published by the trade association show that it counted 1,483 independent bookseller members in June 2006, a number that dropped to 1,289 by 2009, and to 1,099 by June 2011. One hundred and two independent bookshops closed down in 2009 alone. There has also been a decline in the number of bookshops joining the Booksellers Association, with only 23 opening so far this year, compared with 50 in 2010. In terms of retail market share by volume, the independents fell from 9.2% in 2005 to 4% in 2010.
UK bookshop prior to closure / Flickr - Jovike
It is hard to be precise about the degree to which digital options are spurring on this decline. Certainly, e-books, the sales of which have been steadily increasing as more people adopt associated technologies in the form of e-readers and tablet computers, represent a dynamic new market and pose a long-term threat to paper publishing in general. But at present, the effect that e-books are having on consumer choices remains ambiguous, as the hardware required for this material is far from universal.
More easily measurable is the effect of Internet vendors such as Amazon, which sell printed books online and deliver them to customers’ homes. While the market share of independent bookshops has more than halved, that of Internet vendors has grown dramatically, rising from 8.8% in 2005 to 27% in 2010. In 2009, 72% of readers surveyed said they purchased books online, 80% of them citing convenience and price, and 69% citing range as the principal reasons for ordering over the Internet. Other important factors included the availability of reviews and extra content.
A steady increase in the print book market share held by discount chains and supermarkets also poses a significant threat to independents, operating on economies of scale that local stores cannot hope to duplicate. Speaking to the BBC earlier this month in reference to changes in pricing legislation, Steve Pritchard, former owner of the recently-closed Pritchard’s Bookshop in Formby, said that “as soon as the net book agreement [which set book prices for all retailers] went in the mid-90s, that led to a huge amount of competition from the likes of Tesco and Asda, who came in selling the top books for very low prices … Obviously we couldn't compete on price because they were selling them cheaper than we were buying them for”.
So what can independent bookshops do to maintain viable businesses? When it comes to growing markets for digital books destined for devices such as tablets and e-readers, there is not much an independent bookseller can do to compete; but within the printed book market, independent and specialised shops can offer personalised services and expertise in domain and subject that large-scale discounters and online vendors cannot. 
Meryl Halls, the Booksellers Association's head of membership services, said to the Guardian that although “the current economic climate is undeniably tough and the book retail sector is suffering across the board”, the independents were “fighting so hard to survive [and] continue to deliver an outstanding service – knowing the books they recommend and sell, knowing their customers, focusing on things that the deep price cutters can't offer and running fantastic and value-adding events".
In addition to personalised service, small independent players might also consider different forms of diversification. They are well placed to provide extra cultural value to their standard commercial stock, in the form of local book clubs, a café-style reading environment, literary events, or even musical performances. Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, an independent bookshop also profiled in the aforementioned BBC article, provides an example for other small outlets looking to innovate in retail book selling. The store, which opened in 2006 and has twice been named the UK's Independent Bookshop of the Year, offers “book-themed events featuring author talks, themed food and music from the shop's house band”. It even has what its owner, Nic Bottomley, calls a “bibliotherapy room”, where book-lovers can sit in comfortable chairs next to the fireplace and seek advice and recommendations from a resident “bibliotherapist”.
Homepage of Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights website

"It's creating an atmosphere that celebrates books and puts the customer and the book at the centre of it," said Mr Bottomley in the same article. He said that to merely survive, it was imperative to offer exceptional customer service and a great range of books, and that “to thrive, I think you've got to have added extras - unusual gift ideas in our case, or things like adding a band to events and making them more themed and comprehensive”. He added that “when people walk in, I want them to feel that we love books and want to talk to them about books, and that we're not just here to sell them books necessarily on that day”.
Whatever techniques may exist for independent bookshops to maintain their customer base as the industry changes, it is certain that they all face a simple choice: either modify their operating models or prepare for closure. There is no shortage of raw material for booksellers of all stripes; despite the hard times for retailers, Bookshop Association figures reveal that works published in the UK have increased from 109,143 titles in 2001 to 157,039 in 2009, and that there has been a steady increase in the number of new publishers appearing each year. So the question is not what to sell, at a time when there is more stock than ever – but how to sell it.

Photo credits :
- Photos : Flickr - Jovike
- Screen shot of site Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights
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