Four and a half weeks ago a bookseller in Glasgow used the Contact Richard page on this here website that you’re looking at to drop me a line. In itself, this was a shock. Almost nobody ever notices that’s there at the top of the page, and when it makes itself suddenly and unapologetically useful it can be a bit startling. Secondly, while I’m used to approaching people about my books now, having it happen the other way around… not so much.
The bookseller is an independent, and shall remain nameless (I emailed to ask if they minded my mentioning them, but they haven’t replied) – the picture on the left is not the shop in question.
Before I go on, a quick reminder. Bookshops are in trouble. The massive chain bookstores like Waterstones in the UK and B&N in the US are finding it incredibly difficult to stay afloat. In a world where Amazon is doing their basic job (offering a wide selection of books at the best price to you, the customer) better than them, the industry that they used to dominate is leaving them in the dust. There’s a bitter irony to this, because they’re now in the exact same position they put independent bookshops in a decade or two ago. When the super bookstores first emerged, with their dazzling selection of titles, small privately owned bookstores dropped like flies. They couldn’t compete on price (the mega stores used their buying power to excellent effect in demanding deep discounts from publishers), and so went out of business. The survivors of that sea change are, obviously, in even more trouble now. If the big fishes that stomped on them are themselves being stomped on… well, it’s no fun being at the bottom of all the stomping.
In my opinion – and that’s all it is – for bookshops to thrive on the high street in the near future they have to fundamentally change what they are. They used to be destination places, somewhere you’d make a special trip to go to because that’s where the books were. When I was a kid I’d make the fifty mile round trip from my small town to the city of Newcastle at least once a month, because I love books. These days? Whether as a download to the Kindle or an easy mail order, the books travel to the reader not the other way round. So, what’s a bookstore to do?
I thought this one might have been on to something. The owner had been tracking down self-published books featuring Glasgow in different ways, and had thus stumbled upon Thy Fearful Symmetry. They bought a copy on Kindle, read it, and liked it. What they were hoping to do was add it to a selection of self-published books about or featuring Glasgow (I pretty much blow Glasgow up in the course of the apocalypse in that book) that they could stock, and which would be unlikely to be on the shelves at Waterstones. In short, they were exploring the idea of being a destination store again. Somewhere to go, with a selling point – cool stuff on shelves that you could browse, that you couldn’t browse elsewhere. The Glasgow connection was a neat hook to hang it all on.
They wanted to come to an arrangement with me for eight copies, for display and stock, and I was massively excited by this. The chance to work with a bookseller one on one, in my own city (well, it will be next year), where I’m actually local, was and is something I’m very keen to explore. Amazon gives me massive reach online, but lacks much opportunity for personal connection. I like people. I especially like book people. Booksellers excite me in peculiar ways.
Alas, it didn’t work out, because the owner wanted sale or return terms. The book industry has operated this practice for years, and refuses to give up on it. Basically, when a store orders books from a distributor, they only pay for what they can sell. Anything they can’t flog within a set period of time, they can return to the distributor for free without paying for that book. It puts all the risks in the hands of the publisher.
Nope. I don’t care if that’s how bookstores are used to operating. I’m not playing that game – at least not for books I sell to a bookstore myself. Decide what you want to stock, then sell it. If it doesn’t sell itself, work harder to push it. Simple.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t budge on this and the bookseller moved on. Fair enough, if a little disappointing.
But it has me wondering – how can I start partnering with proper, independent stores. That’s actually where I’d prefer my books to be, in the bricks and mortar world. Those are the offline businesses I’d like to support. With so many new books becoming available that aren’t going to be on the shelves at Tesco because they’re independently published, are independent booksellers interested in taking a leap of faith and changing how they do business, and who with?
The fact that one found and emailed me suggests they might be, and that’s promising. It’s a whole sector of the business that’s an unknown to me, because it’s always dealt with distributors that won’t carry self-published materials. If it’s opening up… there’s opportunity there to do something new and exciting, and that’s what bookstores desperately need to start being.
Over the next year I’ll be putting some serious thought into how I could partner with one or two bookstores when I get back to Scotland. Could a single bookseller with a decent online store of its own be the sole stockist of a particular book, or range of books, for example? Something unique to them, that customers might go and look for? Would they be interested in partnering with micro-presses, not just stocking books but producing tiny runs associated only with their business? How would that work, and what kind of arrangements would need to be made? Are bookstores in the UK already exploring how to be more than tiny inadequate Amazons? I’m hopelessly out of touch, so you tell me.
The relationship between independent bookstores and the independent authors nearby to them seems ripe for development. But how to do it? Answers on a postcard please. Do you have a favorite bookshop? Why is it your favourite – why do you go there? Are you a bookseller? Leave me a comment, or drop me a line. You don’t have to be in Glasgow. You just have to have an open mind. Perhaps we can make something happen. You never know.