The State of Bookselling: a summary of the SoA debate.
This year's AGM of the Society of Authors was in Imperial College of Science and Technology - which judging from the banners decorating the modern entrance on Exhibition Road, is celebrating its 100th year.
I have been to a couple of AGMs at the Society of Authors before and I have found them fairly depressing (although I remember Philip Pullman cracking a few good jokes). This year it was the turn of Tracy Chevalier to take the chair. A good chair person has to be firm and charming at the same time, I think, and luckily Tracy Chevalier was both.
The three guests of the discussion after the AGM 'The State of Bookselling' were Gerry Johnson, the Managing Director of Waterstones, Kes Nielsen, Amazon's Director of Buying (UK Books) and Robert Young, an independent bookseller in a small market town called South Molton - so a good range.
It was a really interesting discussion and I left feeling quite optimistic (which I wasn't expecting). I shall attempt to summarise the general points.
Waterstones seems to have changed a little in character over the past few years. A few years ago I tried to arrange an event in a branch in Manchester but was told to contact the regional events manager. She proved to be not open to suggestions - something other people reported finding also - even the eminent writer sitting close to me. Perhaps these days we would both have more luck; Waterstones is no longer 'centralised', says Gerry Johnson, but relies on local autonomy. Although some stock is common the stocking process in general has been devolved with the local manager making decisions. This must be good for everyone - the manager, the customers and local writers.
Waterstones has a staff of 3 500 with a range of experience and there will be 460 events in the next few weeks. They are independent - for instance all the hand written signs are actually a result of individual enthusiasm within a store and Gerry Johnson felt that Waterstones were getting a raw deal with reports in the press.
These are difficult times. The High Street is under pressure. All retailers are finding things difficult as they are in competition with out of town shopping centres, supermarkets and the internet. High Street shops are heavily taxed and parking is expensive (this is certainly true in Chester - with parts of some streets given over entirely to charity shops) . In view of this Waterstones is also attempting to establish its own internet presence.
The independent bookseller, Robert Young, commented that since the abolition of the net book agreement the business of bookselling had changed considerably. It was now pointless for them to stock many titles due to competition from Watersones and Amazon. However it was possible for them to succeed with some authors and events in their shops attracted a substantial number of customers in small towns. They offered experience, knowledge and service.
Amazon are 'cool'. This is official (on some authorised list - not sure which one). They have 666 000 titles available and are proud of recent innovations including the 'search inside' facility. However Kes Nielsen acknowledged it was still 'day one' and more work needed to be done. There is almost limitless potential with the internet, he said, and although they are proud of the job they have done in their first nine years they regard it very much as a 'work in progress'.
I shall finish with some startling statistics:
1. Only 30-40% people ever buy a book...
2. ...and of these 60-70% only buy one or two books a year.
3. The age-group least likely to read are the 14-30 year olds. This group are regarded as a critical challenge. They need something ephemeral (i.e. celebrity-based, perhaps) to entice them back into the childhood habit of reading.
4. Waterstones is spending £4 million on targeting children and enticing them into their stores. They are aiming to reduce the perceived 'stuffiness' and make the bookshop an interesting place to the young.
5. When Waterstones took over Ottakers they had to throw £1 million worth of stock into skips.
6. Amazon have a scheme called VINE. This consists of a database of 100-1000 of their best reviewers who have a monthly newsletter and are invited to read proofs.