Last week’s IPG conference unearthed some strong criticisms of high street booksellers from Iain Dale. He slated WH Smith for their “marketing fee”, hit out at Waterstones’ changed buying policy, got angry at Amazon’s demands for discount, and questioned the ethics of buying places on bestseller charts. Importantly, Dale seems quite convinced that we should be preparing for the post-bookshop world. Personally, I’m far more optimistic about the ability of publishers and retailers to work together for mutual benefit, but fortune favours the… prepared. So here are some tips for those of you now anticipating a high street devoid of novels.
1. Stop fetishising books
I’ve spoken before about how books are a business we tend to get sentimental about due to some attribution of a higher cultural significance. We fetishise books, things that hold books, things made out of books, and things that aren’t books but look like books. We proudly label ourselves and our customers as ‘book lovers’ as though we’re some rare mammalian breed; we see ourselves as arbiters of taste and culture and keepers of knowledge that society would be idiotic to ignore, devalue or demean. Constant book worship is quite a large part of most publishers’ current brand strategy.
The pity is the view we have of ourselves is not shared by the vast majority of the reading public. Books are entertainment, and if you look at the book trade as the entertainment industry, it does colour our priorities (and our customers’ needs) rather differently. The sooner this happens, the faster we will be able to create meaningful connections with readers rather than bibliophiles.
2. Grow some serious balls
Things are tough all over for everyone, as Dale kindly points out. They’re tough because there are hard decisions being made about lists, pricing, stock, business methods that the industry might have held onto for years and years. There are traditions we need to keep and some we need to shed very quickly, and knowing the difference will be super important. The other part of this is having strength of mind to implement these changes and voice concerns.
Important distinction: having balls is not the same as being a ball. There’s room for maybe three jerks in the entire industry or else we’ll probably implode from mutual hatred. I’m pretty sure these people already exist. They’re the ones you follow on Twitter for entertainment value but every time they tweet something they class as wisdom you just want to get out the hammer and smash your screen to pieces. Don’t be those people. We do still need each other to learn from (and drink with).
3. Get some perspective
The industry has changed a lot in the past ten years. Consolidation; closures on the high street; fewer publishers; digital digital Amazon digital. But people haven’t stopped reading. I’m not saying we don’t need retailers and we don’t need books because who cares. I’m saying we can’t go back even if we wanted to, and changed isn’t the same as broken.
When you stand back from the book trade and say ‘what do we do’ or ‘what are we for’ the answer is not as simple as printing books, or selling books, or perpetuating tradition. It’s far broader and more exciting than that. The publishers who answer the question best are the ones who will move forward. The publishers who lament the transition will not. It’s our ability to analyse and adapt that we’ll be remembered for.