Chances are you’ve already seen this incredible round-up of the ten most beautiful bookshops in the
world. This recent post on hip US blog Flavorwire has enjoyed remarkable success, inspiring several articles and a huge amount of praise and discussion in various forums worldwide. Over here in
Britain, the Guardian’s article about it received nearly 200 comments.
If you’ve not yet looked at the photos, you’re in for a treat. These bookshops are beautiful, breathtaking, almost miraculous places. And the astonishing amount of buzz created around
the post reassures me that I’m not alone in thinking this. Evidently, I’m just one of several thousand bookshop-lovers. And these people aren’t the old musty luddites that one
might expect; over 9,000 of them are at least technically savvy enough to have tweeted about it.
But hang on a minute; I thought bookshops were supposed to be a dying breed. Aren’t they the horse-and-carts of the digital age? Usually it only takes an article about Amazon or outlining the
problems faced by bricks-and-mortar bookshops to provoke a stream of comments cynically welcoming bookshop-lovers to the twenty-first century and telling them to get real. (See the comments on this
article in the Telegraph, for instance.)
The Flavorwire post tells a different story. If anything, it’s saying the absolute opposite: Please don’t get real! Please continue to exist as wonderful, fantastical temples of the
And yet, despite all this adoration, these reams of praise, the cacophony of tweets, bookshops are undeniably going through a hard time. Is it the case that all these thousands of bookshop-lovers
are hypocrites? Do they tweet away about the beauty of these shops while on another tab they’re buying everything from Amazon? I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, not least
because I work in an independent bookshop and can see how many loyal customers we have.
Indeed, lack of customers isn’t an issue for good bookshops. The real problem is on the other side of the equation — the publishers.
Last week’s issue of the Bookseller featured a long article about publishers’ special sales departments. The thrust of the article was that, in light of the current problems faced by
high street bookshops, publishers are increasingly looking for sales from non-traditional outlets — so-called ‘special sales’. They quoted the head of special sales at publisher
Simon & Schuster: ‘if you’re looking at a high street which is facing the challenges that it is … you’re going to try to extend your reach.’
It seems as though publishers aren’t going to stick by bookshops and offer them a helping hand through tough times. Instead they’re going to pursue other ways of selling books.
It’s no secret that publishers give far higher discounts to supermarkets, Amazon, and many special sales outlets than they give to bookshops — especially independent bookshops. An
independent bookshop will typically get a discount of 45 per cent from a publisher, whereas Amazon will demand 70. When a newspaper gives away copies of a book, it has bought them for little more
than the cost of production – nowhere near half the book’s retail price.
The demands of supermarkets, other special sales deals and Amazon mean that a very large proportion of book sales are through high-discount channels. This has happened to such an extent that many
literary agents are calling for changes to authors’ contracts, so that these high-discount sales no longer yield a reduced royalty rate.
Well, publishers, rather than putting all your energy into your special sales departments, trying to sell books anywhere other than bookshops, what about giving independent bookshops some higher
The problem is, in spite of articles like that post on Flavorwire, proving that book-buyers love bookshops, publishers don’t see bookshops as a powerful force. When I worked at a major
publishing house, if a book was labelled a ‘bookshop book’ — especially by the sales department — it was rarely more than a term of abuse. It meant limited appeal, tiny
niche market, far away from the golden goal of a ‘supermarket book’. Publishers hold no confidence in these small operations, dismissing their selling potential as tiny. Instead, as the
Bookseller article so clearly highlighted, they prefer to hedge their bets by investing in special sales.
If only publishers could see that a post about beautiful bookshops getting over 9,000 direct tweets is an important and powerful phenomenon. If only they shared this confidence in and appreciation
of bookshops. If only they decided to try to keep bookshops on the high street by giving them discounts that are even comparable to those they give Amazon or special sales. If only they could see
that, rather than spending so much time and energy searching for new places to sell books, they’ve got hundreds of very special shops — at least for now.