In the Indie Bookselling session a number of Scotland’s best book and comic sellers highlighted their challenges and how they plan to survive.
“I’m going to walk my own way and do it the right way.”
Ann opened up the session with some essential statistics. In 2015, 13 indies opened and 45 closed. In 2005 there were 1,035 indies and in 2015 just 894. There may be fewer indie booksellers but there are plenty who are still clinging on.
Marie’s Edinburgh Bookshop has been going for 9 years and she’s been in charge for last 3.5 years. She’s doubled the business since she took over citing her marketing background as a contributor to this. What makes her shop superior over the likes of Tesco, who can afford to greatly discount on their books? The fact that she pays her staff living wage unlike supermarket zero hour contracts. She also takes inspiration from Elaine’s shop Word Power Books: “I’m going to walk my own way like Elaine and do it the right way.”
Alby describes Little Shop of Heroes as a “community comic shop”, and that his success stems directly from “being part of the community” in Dunfermline. Though margins are tight “realising we were never going to be wealthy allows us to liberate our decision making”. His challenges are the same across all book retail in trying to compete against deep discounting. However, he has a unique issue in that 80% of the comic products he sells are targeted towards a US audience, so Alby needs to make them appealing to a UK audience.
As Alby has to buy at least three consecutive issues of a series, if the first copy is to flop this means “the whole series dies without a trace”, leaving Alby with stock getting dusty. There’s a lot of risk in it. There’s also 3,000 comics out every month so he has to find the perfect series for his shop. Despite these challenges the community is really of massive importance to Alby and there’s “a lot of love in it”.
Elaine’s Word Power Books is a radical bookshop that has been going for decades now. Her niche is books outside of the mainstream and her own publishing arm which has put out around 25 books so far. “Running a bookshop is 24/7” but people read an average of two books a year – “a scary statistic”. The top selling categories in the industry generally are romance and sagas which Word Power doesn’t stock. Elaine is true to her shop’s roots but it can be difficult.
Reinvention is vital to survival
Ann asked how events help or hinder their shops. Alby believes that reinvention is “vital to our survival” and events are a key way of doing this. None of his events are for profit. The Dunfermline Comic Con was a marketing event for Little Shop of Heroes on top of their weekly events. It encourages people who have never been in his shop to go there, to be part of the growing community. Giving things away for free is a part of it, such as with Free Comic Book Day.
Marie emphasised the importance of understanding what you do well as a bookseller when running events. Edinburgh Bookshop has a number of events for children and also cooking events for adults which perfectly caters to her audience. She doesn’t make money on authors who are ‘little names’ so is always seeking to include better known authors across the country.
“We hand sell more than anyone else.”
Elaine believes publishers need to think more about building their authors’ reputation and have them involved with indie bookshops to create a mutually nurturing community. Marie added that 40% of Julian Barnes’ latest book’s sales were in independents and this is because “we hand sell more than anyone else. We can build authors better than anyone else.”
For example, Word Power had been stocking Elena Ferrante books for years prior to the current spike in interest. Now the books are everywhere and heavily discounted, Elaine has to rely upon loyal customers who will buy from her and not from the local supermarket.
“We’re dealing with a product that’s underpriced in the first place,” said Marie, so further discounting is a constant frustration. For years Alby has fought the discount trend and knows it is a losing battle. However, Waterstones, Amazon etc are not there to nurture authors, they’re there to push units. Elaine believes publishers are starting to recognise indie importance but there’s still a long way to go.
Alby’s own method of marketing involved the comic con, getting 2,500 people in one place at one time, hearing about the shop. It was a lot of work but ultimately worth it. He curated a range of graphic novels for schools which were challenging (including Watchmen) but of use.
This involvement, again, is key. Marie can’t stress enough the importance of the little things. When she sees a customer having a bad day, she makes them a cup of tea. If they need a rest from the kids she’ll entertain them for a while. Elaine has the same thing: she knows her regular customers’ names and sometimes can feel a bit like a social worker! Alby has also been known to give customers a hug or two.
Bringing the session to a close Ann asked, “Will there be books in 2020?”
“Yes,” was the unanimous answer.
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