Independent booksellers could join forces to compete with chains

London’s Big Green Bookshop has received interest from more than 100 other indie retailers after floating the idea of union to negotiate better prices and exclusives with publishers

More than 100 independent bookshops around the UK are attempting to join forces, in order to compete with powerful chains such as Waterstones and WH Smith and negotiate better prices and exclusive editions of bestselling titles.

Last Christmas, there was unease among many independent shops when they missed out on an exclusive edition of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, with all 5,000 copies of the hardback book going to Waterstones. Indie booksellers felt they had missed out on offering their customers the signed, special edition of the long-awaited novel; writing anonymously at the Secret Bookseller blog, one retailer laid out their belief that the deal showed “how the publishing industry tends to operate in 2017, with everything fixed in favour of Waterstones”.

The idea of independent booksellers banding together to look for exclusive deals on a handful of major titles each year was proposed by Simon Key of Wood Green, London’s Big Green Bookshop earlier this month. On his shop’s website, Key set out the idea of indie stores agreeing to stock and promote a few big releases each year as a united force, in the way chain stores do. “If this happened, I suspect that there’d be quite a few publishers and authors who’d take notice, and want to support this,” he wrote.

On Monday, Key said that there were more than 100 stores keen to sign up to the concept and that the catalyst for the project was the release of La Belle Sauvage. “There was a lot of anger in that [Secret Bookseller] blog that focused on Philip Pullman and Waterstones and publishers. I didn’t agree with that bit, but the blog also pointed out how Waterstones has 290-odd shops, so it is a lot easier for publishers to deal with … When they’re negotiating with 290 independents, they have to go to each one individually. I thought that there was power in numbers, so if a bunch of indies did get together to negotiate with a publisher, that would be easier.”

Key acknowledged past efforts to set up buyer consortiums to negotiate bigger discounts on titles, “but I think the thing about independent bookshops is that they are individual: we don’t all want the same books. What makes them brilliant is that they are so different.”

He said: “The great thing about it is that we are trying to work together. People just want a slightly more even playing field, and to be able to offer our customers something else special too. It’s really exciting. Publishers have been very positive, saying they want this to happen – they’re desperate to work with independent booksellers, and so if something is set up that makes it easier for them, then they’re all for it.”

Tamsin Rosewell at Kenilworth Books said the concept was “definitely worth exploring, but there are some hurdles to be leapt”, including the project’s commercial viability, and its potential effect on authors.

“Even if there were 150 of us, with the small selling spaces we have, would it make it commercially viable for a publisher to do a discount for us?” she said. “But my major concern would be if it contributed to the underlying problem of author royalties going down and down. That’s absolutely crushing writers, and if there were more discounts, it would make it worse, not better … Independent bookshops are seen by many authors as the last bastion of support for them, and at no cost would I push down authors’ royalties any further, not even if it meant I had a special edition of a Philip Pullman book.”

Pullman himself, writing on the Big Green Bookshop’s website, called the suggestion a good idea. “I hope it’ll work,” added the author, who has described independent bookshops as “the lantern bearers of civilisation” in the past. “As for the 5,000 copies of La Belle Sauvage signed for Waterstones, I also signed 5,000 bookplates exclusively for independent booksellers,” he added.

According to the Booksellers Association, the independent bookshop sector grew in 2017 for the first time since 1995, with the total number of shops inching up to 868 stores, from 867 in 2016. “We had a great Christmas and a good year last year,” agreed Key. “One of the best we’ve had in a long time.”

Waterstones’ annual profits jumped 80% in 2017, with pre-tax profits of £18m.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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