Industry Focus: New Approaches to Bookselling
Booksellers are, without doubt, facing challenging times.
The number of independent booksellers in Britain has dropped below 1,000 for the first time, according to the Bookseller’s Association. James Daunt, the managing director of Waterstones, introduced the selling of Kindles through Waterstones bookshops. The high street chain bookstores are now joining forces with their independent counterparts to battle eBooks, price-slashing supermarkets and online retailers.
While exploring the survival tactics implemented by various bookshops, I have spoken to Anne Sebba, chair of the Society of Authors, and staunch supporter of bookshops, and Nic Bottomley, owner of the award-winning Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.
Collaboration is a Smart Move for Bookshops
Building links with publishers, other bookshops and authors can lead to exciting developments that result in better relationships with customers. In May 2014, Legend Press launched their ‘Think Independent’ campaign, a move highlighting the independent publisher’s support for independent bookshops.
“As an independent and innovative publisher,” said Tom Chalmers, the MD of Legend Press, “we are keen to work closely with independent bookshops. The aim of Think Independent is to ensure both publishers and bookshops remain independent but have greater strength through partnership.”
Nic Bottomley, the Mr B in Bath’s Mr B’s Reading Emporium, agreed that maintaining a dialogue with publishers, booksellers and authors was a key factor in offering customers something different.
“I think it’s very important to communicate with publishers, booksellers and authors all the time,” said Nick. “It always leads to fun stuff and generally is really rewarding, financially as well eventually.”
Championing The Howling Miller by Finnish author Arto Paasilinna, Mr B’s commissioned a limited hardback edition of the title.
“We designed our own cover for this book, it was a collaboration with Canongate. I think it needed to be Canongate because they are the most inventive and creative publisher, so they were the perfect people to do the first one with. Then we did the same thing with Orion for that great British thriller Rogue Male.”
Customers of Mr B’s loved the idea of owning an edition of a great title that was only available through their bookshop–all 300 copies have been sold.
There’s also another product of imaginative collaboration the readers benefit from: one shelf of the Mr B’s is always dedicated to titles suggested by another bookshop.
“We used Blackwells in Oxford briefly last summer and one of the books they suggested was a book about mindfulness,” said Nic.
“That happened to be an area where we had poor knowledge and therefore a very small range–suddenly we sold 60 copies, just by having it around and on display. We’re learning all the time, and we realised that there was an untapped desire for books like that amongst our customers.”
Sell the ‘Experience’ of buying books in a Bookshops
Very few people would describe buying books online as an experience; in contrast, there is a magic about stepping into a bookshop.
Anne Sebba, chair of the Society of Authors, agrees that bookshops should look to offer something that enhances a visit to the bookshop; something that helps to create an environment that people want to spend time in.
“Bookshops have to be gift shops, perhaps have coffee bars. Going in to a bookshop has to be a positive experience,” said Anne.
“They have to offer something that you can’t get online. There is nothing quite like the joy of watching a child in a bookshop as they discover that turning the pages is a really exciting thing.”
As a result, many bookshops have decided to remove some of their shelving to create a more appealing environment. My own local Waterstones is testament to this. In removing some of the floor-standing shelving, the store exchanged that slightly claustrophobic, maze-like quality for an open, comfortable space that encourages a natural meandering throughout the shop.
But bookshops need to look beyond the physical environment in creating inviting spaces for people. Nic knew from the outset that they wanted to do things in a fresh way.
“We found, to our pleasant surprise, that the more things we did differently, and the more small calculated risks we took in how we did things, the more people were coming through our doors. That gave us the confidence to keep adding to the odd things and to be more esoteric in our approach.”
Mr B’s has a very hands-on approach to bookselling including Mr B’s Reading Spa, where customers can book one-on-one time with one of their booksellers who will suggest a range of titles based of the personal reading tastes of the customer. This personal style of bookselling has paid dividends for the bookshop.
“We have created a place that the people of Bath, and regular visitors of Bath, really enjoy spending time in, and as a side effect spend money in, but it’s somewhere that people feel extremely passionate about and that’s our key success.
“I think everyone needs to think about what they can do that helps sell the experience of buying a book. By doing that, by offering something that’s a little bit different, and by creating a beautiful shop where everyone is welcome, you compete with online sales. It’s about high street versus non-high street.”
Bricks and mortar shops are, indeed, facing challenging times, but there are things booksellers can do to ensure their future success; the ones discussed above represent just a few.
The current successes in bookselling have adapted and offer their customers something different, building a strong and loyal following as a result. This is the way forward for bookshops.
Sam Scott worked in bookshops for nearly twenty years before moving into editorial and marketing roles, though she describes herself as 'lapsed bookseller' and still has a keen interest in books, bookshops, and bookselling. Sam completed her MA in Professional Writing at Falmouth University in 2015, and now lives in Exeter where she works at the University of Exeter. She writes two blogs: 'Oh, for the love of Bookshops' and ‘Mook and Lulu's Blog’