This month brings to an end our year-long reign as best independent bookshop in the UK & Ireland as another bookshop is voted the best by industry colleagues. This led me to thinking what have the twelve months been like for Dulwich Books, has it made a difference, did we even have time to enjoy it? This is a time for reflection.
Also it is a time to think about the book industry awards ceremony itself and ask are they really necessary or are they just an excuse for people from the same industry to get together for a night out, a reason to buy a new dress or suit and tell each how great we are. Of course it is great to have an excuse to dress up and see friends and colleagues over a glass of champagne, don’t get me wrong I am just reflecting.
I believe that the book industry has a good excuse to celebrate. It is estimated that the industry accounted for 231,000 jobs in the UK creative economy in 2013, with an almost equal split between men (50.2%) and women (49.8%). Although, sadly, that 50/50 balance does not continue up the management hierarchy where you will find fewer and fewer women the higher you go. The lack of diversity is also still an issue within the industry.
Total revenue for the UK book publishing industry rose from £3.3bn in 2012 to £4.3bn in 2014, driven by a 66 per cent increase in digital sales. In terms of turnover, the UK has the second-largest publishing industry in Europe and one of the largest in the world. London is considered one of the world’s leading publishing centres and publishing exported services worth £1.89bn in 2014.
Whatever way one reads these numbers they are impressive so, yes, a once a year get together to celebrate is worthy I feel. Although how about independent bookshops, is there a good excuse to celebrate them?
I know you’ll think “of course she is going to say yes we should celebrate independent bookshops” so you’ll be pleased to know that I’ll not disappoint, and here’s why. Independent bookshops, whether they are in the UK or Ireland, have pretty much had every challenge thrown at them in the past 20 years. Back in March 1997 the Restrictive Practices Court ruled that the Net Book Agreement was against the public interest and therefore illegal and therefore books could be sold at whatever price the retailer wished and the era of discounted prices was ushered in. Immediately chains such as Dillons and Books Etc started selling books with money off and it proved a major challenge for small independents to charge £20 for the new Jamie Oliver cookbook when customers could buy the same book in Dillons for £10.
However that challenge was quickly surpassed by an online retailer who named themselves after the world’s largest river. You need to be a certain age to remember Amazon arriving as a retailer, sadly I am well over that age and I am the first to admit I thought, wow what a concept, this could be great. It soon transpired that Amazon did not care what product they were selling, they just wanted to sell thousands of it, make 1p on each item. Mass volume sales = impact on our local community = local shops closing could be the case study for this development. We can all recount a tale of our local bookshop or toy shop that’s closed due to unbeatable competition and we probably are now graced with more coffee shops then we can use in one week. Very soon afterwards supermarkets joined in when they saw an opportunity to sell the more popular books to their customers and they could meet the price from Amazon and so yet more competition for independent bookshops.
Bookshops closed in their hundreds during this period and again I’d be the first to admit that some were just not good enough to survive, they didn’t work to build that customer loyalty, failing to meet the customers’ needs and frankly just stood behind their tills expecting customers to stream through their doors to buy books.
And all this before the biggest game changer of all, the eBook. Like them or loath them, unlike Amazon or the supermarkets, eBooks will still be here in the centuries to come. There are huge benefits to eBooks: many people enjoying reading books on devices, they make taking books in your suitcase on a Ryanair flight more achievable, and you can read on the move. The appeal of eBooks is reflected in the fact that eBooks sales overtook print book sales for the first time in 2015. Print sales of adult fiction have declined by over £150m since 2009, new figures show, as eBooks take an increasingly large bite out of the market. With £150m of book sales no longer available for high street bookshops to put through their tills it’s no wonder that bookshops throughout the country cannot survive. In a recent report Hachette Livre – one of the world’s largest publishing company – reported that 78% of their eBook sales were through Amazon, that’s a dangerous number for any company and the industry.
Going back to my original question, why celebrate independent bookshops, well that we’ve survived all that and are feeling much more optimistic about the future. The closure of bookshops has slowed dramatically, sales in the leading independent bookshops is up for the first three months of 2015, in some cases by double digit growth and the major publishers are now beginning to recognise the importance of having high street bookshops.
Couple that with announcement from the likes of Sainsbury’s that they are pulling out of selling physical books and we see a scenario where physical books are best found in high street bookshops and not surrounded by baked beans, or to be bought from companies that don’t contribute their fair share to UK PLC or in a format that you cannot hand onto a friend and say, you must read it, it’s fantastic.
So yes, let’s celebrate as an industry, we are doing OK in this economically challenged environment. The awards take place on Monday 11th May and I will be there again, this time as a spectator and guest of Penguin Random House so feel I can really soak up the atmosphere and enjoy myself. Although suffice to say that the search for another outfit to wear is under way.