Tongues were a-wagging at last Wednesday night's highly anticipated Society of Young Publishers event. Surrounded by books and absorbed readers in Edinburgh’s Central Library, four of Edinburgh’s best-loved independent bookshops got together to discuss their future in a world of digital reading. A dicey topic, some would say. As a Bookseller myself for one of these indies (I’m a Bookseller and Events Coordinator at Golden Hare Books) I’m stunned by the number of people who come in to the shop to congratulate us on our venture into the unknown, and in these uncertain times too… we are hailed as ‘brave’.
The discussion held by our panellists last week shows that we are not taking a blind leap into the chasm of doom; we are in fact tapping in to a multi-million pound market with passion and skill – with a huge customer base at our feet, as The Edinburgh Bookshop’s owner Marie Moser passionately reminded us.
Peggy Hughes, Programme Director of the Dundee Literary Festival, and Chair of the event, kicked off with a look at the unique selling point of each indie, arguably the primary artillery they have against big corporations like Amazon. The four panellists under the microscope were: Gillian Robertson from Looking Glass Books; Elaine Henry from Word Power Books; Ian Macbeth from Golden Hare Books; and Marie Moser from The Edinburgh Bookshop (Independent Children’s Bookshop of the Year as awarded by The Bookseller.)
The Unique Selling Point
There was a collective agreement that they do what they do well, but in different ways. “Indie bookshops reflect their location, ownership and customers – that’s where the USP is,” said Gillian Robertson, owner of Looking Glass Books. The shops themselves differ hugely in their location and shop size and layout – The Edinburgh Bookshop is nestled “in a village,” as Marie Moser, Owner, describes their Bruntsfield location. Golden Hare Books has just relocated from the Grassmarket to Stockbridge where Ian Macbeth believes “conversion is up thanks to the new community”. However, Elaine who owns the radical Word Power Books, has just celebrated the shop’s 20th year, and feels that community is at the heart of their success. The bookshop instigated the Radical Book Fair, which “brings a lot of new customers” through their door.
It’s the unique events held by these indies that connects them to their customers. It’s also being a good business person, according to The Edinburgh Bookshop’s Marie who said “as buyers we have to get off our high horse and buy in what sells – even if it’s 50 Shades! We have to pay the bills.” They all agree that knowing your customers is key. “We might not have been able to get the shop off the ground if it wasn’t for social media,” said Gillian when the panel was asked what role social media played in an indie’s rooting in its local community. Marie and Elaine both feel that social media isn’t all that powerful at driving customers to their shops, whilst Golden Hare’s Ian sits on the fence, having taken over the shop’s Managerial role just seven months ago, he feels that “the interpersonal links between booksellers and customers are much more important than online ones”.
When it comes to the fight against the likes of Amazon, indies need to shout about what they can offer customers that Amazon can’t. Personal recommendation from a real-live bookseller is at the top of the list – a diverse range of titles that interests the person browsing came close second. They also have the harness on people who love the physical book – and there are a lot of us. Each of our four indies carefully consider the layout of their shop and the presentation of their books. “It’s not a coincidence that a customer who is sitting having a coffee in our café, which faces the bookshelves, then goes and picks up a book,” said Gillian about her bookshop-cum-café space. Ian Macbeth said “our selection is curated – the range is sacrificed to an extent for that purpose,” but it allows the aesthetic of the book to be celebrated and Golden Hare Books is much like a gallery for books. This feeling was supported by Word Powers’ Elaine who said “jacket design works,” and that she would like to have more space for front-face displays and bigger windows too.
The discussion turned to the U.S and the resurgence of indie shops – and the slow demise of chains. Is that what’s going to happen here in the UK? People are becoming so much more engaged with independent businesses because of the unique features they offer. It’s about people getting together and showing their support. The personal connection offered by indie is what generates that support – and it keeps customers coming back. All the panel felt that the ‘Shop Local’ ethos is building in the UK, and that we may well see the bigger chains closing down whilst the indies thrive.
Online Selling and Digital Books
We asked the panel about online selling and digital books. “I haven’t found our digital niche yet but when bundling is ready I’ll be there,” said Looking Glass Books’ Gillian. Elaine and Marie were both uninterested in selling digital books, though Word Power Books does have an online shop, which has proven to be successful. Marie feels that “we are losing sight of the value of books,” whilst Golden Hare Books’ Ian says they have a small collection on the online shop, but have been using Hive where customers can come and collect the book at the shop and perhaps discover the place for the first time.
Publisher Relationships and National Campaigns
What else is ensuring the survival of the indie? The annual week-long Books Are My Bag campaign has proved to be highly successful for all who have engaged with it, “but we need to be careful not to get too caught up in the tokenism of this campaign and others like it, when what indies really need is the year-round support from publishers,” Looking Glass Books’ Gillian stressed. The panel agreed that large publishers could do a lot more to support indies.
So what can they do? “Publishers are accountable for Amazon’s discounting,” said Elaine from Word Power Books, as the panel discussed the impossible task of competing with Amazon’s notoriously slashed prices. It was felt that publishers need to argue a stronger position against Amazon’s discounting. However, opinions of the recently signed agreement between Amazon and the first of the infamous five – Hachette – remained close to the chests of the panel. When it came to publisher relationships, Word Power Books’ Elaine said that “The relationship with the publisher’s rep is so important,” with all the panel in firm agreement. It was felt unanimously that the relationship with reps is one of the most important parts of the Bookseller’s role, and “one of the [Bookseller’s] greatest pleasures,” according to Ian Macbeth. Sadly the numbers of reps in the UK is dwindling, something the panel want to see being reversed.
Will Amazon Wipe out the Indies?
Finally the topic of Amazon’s bricks-and-mortar home on 34th Street in New York was tackled. Are they moving in on our turf? What happens when they bring it to our own streets? There’s talk of ‘showrooms’ for books – the dreaded high street library for the online shopper. We asked the panel what they thought.
“You can take the positive from Amazon’s ‘showrooms’ – they know that physical book browsing works.” – Gillian, Looking Glass Books
“Stuff them!” – Elaine, Word power Books
“Bring it on!” – Ian Macbeth, Golden Hare Books
“We need to remember Amazon set themselves in a position to wipe out the competition – we need to take it to the politicians.” – Marie Moser, The Edinburgh Bookshop
Diverse opinions when it comes to Amazon’s direct effect on the future of indies. But for now – with increased conversion, doubled revenue, loyal customers and sell-out events, it’s not over yet for our indies – Amazon had better watch out for these feisty four!
We saw a lively, informative and passionate discussion from our brilliant panel, with much meat to chew on for our young publishers. If you would like to see more, check out our twitter page using the handle @SYPScotland and the hashtag for the event #indiefuture to follow the discussion
With huge thanks from the SYP committee to all our Indie experts and to Peggy Hughes for taking part in this event!