The Future of Bookselling?

Amazon Bookshop

The new Amazon bookshop courtesy of The Bookseller

This is a topic I have purposefully avoided writing about since the completion of my final MA project but with the various tales of more independent booksellers now opening as well as Amazon’s recent foray into opening a physical bookshop I couldn’t resist.

As someone who has dreamed of opening a bookshop for as long as I can remember this is an area of particular interest to me and so I suppose it was quite obvious that my MA final project might turn in this direction and that this is a topic that I follow with near obsession. I wanted to explore some of the possible avenues available for alternative business models in independent bookselling through a method known as the Lean Startup. Through a number of experiments I was able to test my theories directly with the prospective customers and finally tested what I had learned through a pop-up bookshop which included all the ideas that had received the greatest feedback. From this final test I was able to produce a comprehensive business plan, marketing plan and report representing what customers really wanted from their bookshops within my target area.

Pop-Up Bookshop

My final experiment – Pop-Up Bookshop, 2015

The greatest news that I am hearing currently is that of new independent booksellers opening up nationwide who are indeed embracing alternative business models. Now my personal favourite story, courtesy of The Bookseller, reports that a new bookshop is coming to town from the Second Home duo. A two-storey building off Hanbury street, the currently unnamed bookshop will also offer live music, a bar and an in-house printing press.

Rohan Silva told The Bookseller “We think there is a big unmet demand for the type of bookshop we want to produce. If you offer a bookshop with the right experience and space to the young crowd in London, there is a big commercial opportunity. This is a golden moment for bookshops.” The shop will also host a number of events and add a range of alternative experience to it’s customers. When I read about this shop and the plans that the duo have for it I almost whooped for joy. Not necessarily because I believe this is singularly the future for independent bookshops as a whole, but rather, because It is great to see and hear that people are embracing the need to really reconsider the bookselling experience to it’s own customer base, locality and what has the prospect of a future in bookselling.

Second Home

Second home offices, Hanbury Street, London

Again with the news of Amazon’s recent physical bookshop opening in Seattle. Though what they are offering is not everyone’s cup of tea and indeed offers up a lot more questions in the industry, it cannot be denied that they are taking what they have learned and testing it amongst the people who matter. Personally I do not see a chain of Amazon stores dotting our high-streets in the future. To me Amazon excels at what it does online and that is where their power lies, physical retailing is altogether another kettle of fish which it seems hard to believe is quite so easily transferrable to physical retailing. However, it seems logical that Amazon would pursue this avenue, dip their toes in the water if you will, and test their idea on a small scale in order to test it’s viability in our fast-developing market.

What is the future of bookselling? Well this, as Silva said,”is a golden moment for bookshops”. With innovation, bravery and a thorough understanding of what the potential market requires, it seems to me that the future of bookselling has great potential. It is only by taking new innovations to the people that we can truly see what works and what won’t and this will vary from location to location. What does seem clear is that we cannot continue to sell books as has been the way for decade or even generations. My personal view of the future of bookselling (or at least my personal ideal) would see a great deal more booksellers taking on the role of independent publishers as do the likes of Daunt Books, Persephone Books and Shakespeare and Company and in kind to make greater face-to-face sellers of our publishers. Sometimes it takes a glimpse to the past to foresee the future.

Paris and the Bibliophile’s Love Affair

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I was recently in the eternally beautiful city of Paris where I haven’t visited for many years. I found myself preparing to leave with what could be considered a severe case of the ‘holiday blues’ at the prospect of returning to an increasingly chain-store orientated London, shared housing and a job far from the industry that I am both qualified in and so passionate to be a part of. There were tears…a lot of tears…tears of rather embarrasing levels. This wasn’t, as may be the case for many, because of the romantic lure of Paris (though it was very romantic and a joy to explore with my rather lovely, fluently French-speaking boyfriend) but rather, because for a book-lover such as I, Paris remains a city of wonderful bookshops and independent Bouquinistes lining the Seine. 

This is a city where small businesses across many industries still seem to thrive or, if not thrive, continue to fight for their independently localised highstreets in a manner that Britain seems to have given up on long ago. I became obsessed by this city’s varied independent businesses over chain-stores, with their wonderful customer service (which as a long time retailer still strikes me as the heart of a business) and with what seems like a healthy attitude to market competition. Here follows the things I saw in Paris which won my heart…

1. The number of similar stores in a single area

This is something that I constantly noticed and brought up (to my boyfriend’s dismay). In Paris there seems to be key areas in which certain types of businesses dominated. Much like days past in London there seemed to be particular areas you might go to for certain things. Walking from Monmartre, for example, we seemed to come across a wedding dress district and some time later a comic book district. Initially I questioned how any of the businesses could be doing well and I came to the conclusion that it was due to healthy competition. Each store must have to strive to do ‘better’ in some way than the shops before and after it. Before chain-stores came into play this was how business worked. It seems considerably fairer that several independents are competing with one another rather than trying to compete with the big-boys popping up all over the city.

2. Book shops filled with people

Perhaps this is the prospective publisher in me but I at least looked into every single book shop I saw if I didn’t enter it’s doors and what I saw was busy busy bookshops so unlike what I see in the UK nowadays. And what’s more, people were leaving with bags full of books! As we know many other countries feel entirely different to us Brits about spending full price on books. Sadly we cannot go back and reinstate the Net Book Agreement and there is no point in wishing we can but it was so nice seeing a city full of people who still respect the worth and value of physical books. This respect is something that I wish and I believe we should strive to reinstate in people in the UK rather than allowing other countries to fall into our own money-pinching ways. Afterall, when you are willing to spend £3-£5 on a coffee what is your complaint of spending little more than that on a physical book?!

3. Independent shops are the mainstream

Of course there are chain-stores in Paris but they are few and far between. I took great joy in trying a different patisserie every day and determining who produced the best baguette, who had the most pleasant staff, where could I not resist returning to, and so on. And if you really wanted the chain stores there were certain areas that you could expect to find them so it came down to a personal choice of which experience you preferred. This is something we are losing in the UK and something I dread will eventually disappear  in the rest of Europe. To me there is little worse in London than seeing a Tesco or Starbucks everywhere I turn. I want variety, I want the option to shop at any of the stores in a mile radius based on the quality of their products.

4.  Bookshops open late into the evening

Honestly, I only noticed that one bookshop opened to 11pm and this was the incredibly busy independent Shakespeare and Company, a wonderful cavelike bookshop selling English titles, which attracted tourists like bees to honey. For me the greatest potential for an independent business is that you can determine your own working hours to better benefit yourself and your customers. I have long been saying that if independent bookshops in the UK were to open later, offer a better variety of community events and stronger customer services, offering a different business model to what is already out there then they could truly compete with the likes of Amazon. This isn’t a new idea, it’s just one that seems to be ignored in large util around the Christmas period. By staying open later you are making yourself available to a whole host of potential customers who would otherwise be at work themselves during your standard opening hours. I always seem to bring up the film Empire Records when I talk about this. If you’ve seen it you’ll probably understand why, if you haven’t and you dislike the big stores as much as I do, well just go watch it.

5. Working in the service industry is treated with respect

Having worked in retail for most of my adult life this is something that I was quite jealous of. Retail workers and waiters/resses, at least, seemed to be treated with respect and in return the customer service given surpased (for the most part) what I have seen in most of the UK. In France these positions are treated as careers, qualifications are even earned relating to the specific field that you go into and therefore the wages are higher and there is even a sense of pride for the job that you are doing. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen great customer service in the UK (I count myself as one of those who gives such) and I also saw some bad customer service in France (i’m sure not everyone in the service industry is there out of choice) but overall it just felt different and better.

I could actually keep on going but these were the key points that I have been considering endlessly. I have to admit though that these alone had me considering the potential to move to Paris in order to pursue my career – to run a successful publishing house alongside a bricks and mortar bookshop  – but I continue to love London’s great publishing tradition, it’s history, the many wonderful, exciting and innovative publishers that are popping up regardless of the many challenges that abound. I also am cynical enough to believe that all that I consider to be great about this industry in Paris has the potential to disappear almost over night. For now I will continue to practice my French and push for change on this side of the Channel and finally start writing that novel which Paris inspired. One day though, who knows…