In partnership there is power
Patrick Neale, President of the Booksellers Association, told the BA Conference that recognising interdependencies was the key to a healthy book trade.I hope you have all enjoyed the conference, more importantly I hope it has given you some clear objectives. The aim of this event is to give us all tools to improve our businesses in the year ahead.
I have less than 10 minutes to explain to you why I am here and what I think I can do to improve the lives of booksellers. First, I would like to demonstrate that I am qualified for the role of BA President. Well, I'm a farmer's son, so I know about hard work. More importantly, I'm used to being waist deep in cow excrement - good preparation for this job.
I worked for Sainsburys and spent 15 years with Waterstones. I am very grateful for both those experiences, though I think it would have been better for my liver if I had left Waterstones a few years earlier. Since then, I have been running Jaffé & Neale, with my partner Polly, for 11 years. So retail and books have been my whole working life.
It's worth warning you, if you don't know me already, that I have a positive, glass half full approach to life. So I want to concentrate on making a difference and working on the things we can change, rather than moaning about the state of affairs or how things just aren't fair. But I stress my positive sunny disposition doesn't mean I am oblivious to the difficulties facing booksellers right now.
It's very tough out there, and there are facts we have to face. Consumers are using booksellers to browse before buying online. That's a fact and it's something we can do little about. But, we have to address the outcome of this and acknowledge that the balance of risk has changed, and therefore it is logicial that the financial model must change with it. This is a conversation that my predecessor, Jane Streeter, opened with publishers a year ago and which I remain optimistically determined to continue.
The need to change the financial model isn't something for the future. It is present and immediate. There isn't time here to lay out new models in detail. But watching what is happening in America, careful consideration is being given to a number of options, including extended credit terms and different marketing models. I think it's crazy that, for some booksellers, it is cheaper to buy stock from other retailers rather than from the supplier. If publishers cherish the high street, this can't continue.
On the subject of financial models, I would like to draw to your attention figures from the Independent Booksellers Fitness Check. This gives me an opportunity to plug this free, confidential and brilliant service. The results so far are a great advert for non-book items and cafés, and a chilling illustration of just what it takes to bring authors' and publishers' beautiful books to the public. It's no exaggeration to say that bookshops that depend solely on book sales are barely break even businesses.
Alongside the bookshop, the other great showcase of literary talent is the library.
We all love libraries. They are part of our cultural DNA, and when they are attacked, it feels like we are attacked. But every single delegate in this room must be concerned about the potential impact of ebook lending. Authors, publishers and booksellers need to be equally terrified by the prospect of unrestricted e-lending; the logical outcome of which is that readers would never have to buy a book again. So I make a plea through Ursula [Mackenzie, Publishera Association President] and Lindsey [Davis, Society of Authors chair] to their members; don't let this happen.
Booksellers, publishers and authors simply have to support each other; individually and as an industry. We know of the huge concern that publishers and authors have about copyright-violation, file-sharing and other forms of piracy, and the BA stands right behind the PA and SoA in their fights to combat them.
Closer to home, Jaffé & Neale have had their hardest year ever. It was with great sadness, in March, that we closed our satellite shop in Chipping Campden because of poor sales.
I am unclear if it's the recession, the impact of the internet, or the wave of ebook sales that is having the greatest influence on us right now. And I am not sure we have hit the lowest point yet. When you hear that Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel, which was 10 years in the making, is being sold for 20 pence as an ebook, you will be right in thinking we are in a period of transition. Ursula: I completely agree with you that selling ebooks at these prices totally undermines the value of books as perceived by our customers. Yet again the short term race for market share is going to damage the long term viability of the trade.
So we all appreciate it's tough out there. But I think we have to accept the situation and understand what it is that our customers want.
My response to this is summed up by three E's:
- We need to Entertain
- We must Exhibit books that customers haven't expected to find.
- And we need to sell Ebooks
In my view, it is essential that we sell ebooks so that we remain part of the Kindle-Kobo owner's life. I am convinced that people are going to buy mixed formats for many years to come, so booksellers need to remain in their thoughts and their vocabulary. I think if we don't embrace ebooks we are giving customers the opportunity to turn their backs on us.
If you're not convinced by the economic argument for selling ebooks, then see it as a marketing and PR opportunity for your business. As Jo Henry's slides so clearly emphasised [see BookBrunch story], owners of ebooks and tablets are big book buyers in whatever format. let's hold on to these customers - they want books whether e or p. Let the High Street bookseller be the one to supply them.
The key to bookshops joining the ebook party is interoperability. It is essential that we are allowed to join in all aspects of bookselling. Things do seem somewhat one sided at the moment; we can't supply ebooks to Kindle owners, but Amazon can supply ebooks to our customers. It needs to be a two-way street. I call on authors and publishers to use their influence to ensure the simple availability of their ebooks in a standard format across all platforms. If we sort this out now it will mean more book sales in the future.
We have to demonstrate that we add value to the customer's experience. To do this, we need to work in even greater partnership than ever before with our colleagues across the trade. We are still the best place to discover new authors and host brilliant events and creative "happenings". I can't imagine how well authors would sell without our constant barrage of window displays around the nation.
So as BA President, I say let's collaborate and keep our valuable cultural capital and community hubs vibrant and financially viable.
I hope I have demonstrated the need for practical changes, and for this we need sensible support. The Mary Portas Review was a great headline grabber . But we need more than column inches. Addressing parking charges is surely a quick win, yet the Portas review has not delivered this. We need action to address this and other iniquities like rent and rates increases. It's going to take more than a Mary Portas to get the government to recognise that the retail model has changed for ever and so must, therefore, the taxation system.
The BA continues to lobby hard, but the industry needs to lobby on this, not just the booksellers if, as I believe we all think, bookshops enrich retail diversity on the high street.
Similarly, we should be pushing hard, as an industry, to the UK Government and European Commission that a review needs to be carried out by the competition authorities to ensure that no monopolies exist in our market.
Again, we need to pool our resources and work as an industry in every way possible to sell as many books across all formats.
A fabulous example of collaboration is how Blackwell's and Foyles on Charing Cross Road - traditional competitors you would imagine - joined together, involving restaurants and bars, to create the Charing Cross Book, with much success.
We need to keep the customers coming in - if every one of us here forges new partnerships, we can create the buzz and excitement that gets people across the threshold of our shops. I urge everyone in the room to take a leaf out of the Charing Cross Road book.
I hope that when we meet next year we will all have stories to tell about how we worked together. And I hope that we can tell of how we co-operated and how we made a difference on the high street, and of how bookselling is in a much better place in 2013 because of it. I am certainly going to work hard with the PA and the SoA to make sure this next year is our most mutually beneficial. Let's get on and sell more books.
To our publishing colleagues, as one particular customer of mine is keen to say, we are all in this together. So, our relationship cannot, must not, be adversarial. In partnership there is power. Let us do all we can to deliver books to as many customers as possible in environments that encourage readers of tomorrow.
For Lindsey, I ask you to encourage your members to get out into the high street and thump the table for books, to pester your publishers for high street events, and to embrace every opportunity there is for you to support the efforts to Keep Books on the High Street. I will say it again, we are all in this together.
I have enjoyed the conference immensely and want to thank everybody who has worked so hard to make it a success. It doesn't stop here. Please make this conference the start of a healthier booktrade.
Patrick Neale is joint ower of Jaffé & Neale, Chipping Norton