BA Conference president's address - the essential conversations

Nic Bottomley
Opinion - Bookselling Monday, 9th September 2019

Nic Bottomley's speech to the Booksellers Association conference in Birmingham this morning

Last year, if my speech had a theme it was about the importance of working together as a community of booksellers and communicating with one another as much as possible. A lesson it's so gratifying to see Parliament having adopted and learned from so well in the last year.

This year I've really decided to ring the changes. Last year we did communication. This time we're doing conversations. See, totally different.

The thing is though I feel that everything that's going on in our lives as booksellers at the moment can be improved by conversations.

Last year we spoke about less formal ones – the need to keep the tips and networking going all year round, the need to share best practice. We introduced some big topics too – we talked about inclusivity and the environment to mention but two – and collectively our thinking on those subjects continues to develop and grow more sophisticated, as you will see from sessions later today.

A year on and I feel it's time for some bigger ones. To build on some of the conversations we've started but to dive into the heart of the issues that we face so we can deliver real changes for the better in the way our industry functions.

The Green Conversation
A year ago one of the things we all agreed we needed to talk about urgently was our industry's environmental responsibilities. It feels wrong to talk about us having made progress given the colossal scale of this global, epoch-defining problem. But in our defined sphere of influence, we have made some progress.

"I find myself led unavoidably and reluctantly down a thought process which says there are simply too many copies of too many books being created"

I hope by now you've all seen our Green Bookselling Manifesto. It was collated by the task force we created last autumn and looks at three areas – what we as booksellers can and should be doing right now in our businesses, the BA's own undertakings and lastly the steps we want to take in partnership with others in the trade to improve the impact of our supply chain.

When it comes to publishers and distributors we've seen some great initiatives already. Publishers are seeming receptive to the idea of eradicating unsolicited point of sale materials – though the occasional gold jiffy envelope still peppers the letter box.

PRH's cardboard fillers might mean you have to get the Dyson out a bit more, but better that than plastic. A few of us on the task force have now seen first hand the efficiency of the recycling functions at the big distribution hubs and their dedication to reducing plastic and other waste in their businesses.

But now it's time for the really big collaborative conversations on this front. We know everyone is keen in principle, so let's sit down and talk. We may be great at recycling our waste material, but let's have a think about how many books we're destroying as an industry. And how much fuel we're burning, shipping too many books into our shops in the first place just so we can ship back the ones we don't sell to be efficiently recycled.

The more I hear from publishers about the genuine complexities of ensuring unwanted and credited books don't slip back into the supply chain so as to undermine us all, the more I find myself led unavoidably and reluctantly down a thought process which says there are simply too many copies of too many books being created and moved around and that the only way to improve matters is to look fundamentally at how we buy books. The recycling centres at the distribution hubs are incredible and brutally efficient, but if you were building a book industry from scratch would you include such facilities in your plan?

Questions arise. Should publishers more widely be incentivising actual sale volumes of titles rather than initial purchase volumes? Are there hybrid models we could create that lie in between Sale or Return, Firm Sale and Consignment terms? Should publicists be more wary of pressuring booksellers from over-ordering for events when a bookseller has a track record of knowing their audience/sale ratios? Should high street bookshops start recognising their role as the “titans of backlist” and work with publishers to better celebrate and profit from that, rather than overstretching their limited resources on excessive quantities of front-list?

Fortunately, the BA task force is commencing some of these big conversations with our publishing and distribution partners right now. As we said a year ago, if you have expertise or impetus to be directly involved then please let us know. Kevin Ramage from the Watermill in Aberfeldy has a tick list of green steps that you can take in your businesses as soon as you get home. He'll tell you all about it in his Green Bookselling session at 11.15.

The High Street Conversation
We learned yesterday from Mark Pilkington quite what we're facing up to in terms of the state of our high streets.

Now, as those of you were there may have picked up, I happen to believe that their future lies not as screen-led showrooms for our own internet sales offer, but as viable and vibrant hubs with bookshops run by passionate book nerds, and like-minded businesses, pumping the lifeblood back into their communities.

The secret to our long-term survival is not in playing to the strengths of online competitors; it's in providing theatrical or atmospheric or knowledgeable or experience-heavy book-crammed spaces.

That's what will lure in both traditional high-street lovers and screen-weary Generation Z'ers seeking connection. That's what will keep the book-lovers coming in and doing our marketing for us AND enable us to find and inspire new readers of every background and generation.

The Political Conversation
To support us in that though the political conversations must continue.

The BA's team are in constant dialogue with central government departments on our behalf. Which is, let's face it, a mug's game right now.... But even though it might be that everyone we're attempting to have dialogue with will be out of a job – or even out of politics completely - by this time next month, the important thing is that if that happens we'll start lobbying their successors moments later.

We're lobbying continuously on the big things that matter to us all – on further business rate reform, on incentivising the occupation of empty retail space, on high street regeneration more generally and, perennially, on concerns in respect of the systemic imbalances and injustices between us all and Amazon.

Conversations with Amazon
Amazon. Even Amazon are getting a bit chatty now though. I think they're coming around a little. I mean they did pay £220m in tax this year. What's that? On earnings of what now? £10.9bn!

Still, at least they're in conversational mood too nowadays. I see they apologised to their fellow booksellers for their recent embargo breach. Apparently the apology for using their dominant position to destroy the global high street as we know it is en route.

Local Politics
Much of the political conversation that's required to ensure our high streets stay vital, is local. I urge you all to throw yourselves into those local discussions – to open dialogue with your local councils, to talk with other local businesses. If things are static you can be the one who spurs things into action.

As Matilda once said, kind of, "Just because you find that life's not fair, it doesn't mean you have to grin and bear it."

Emma Corfield-Waters has essentially single-handedly rebuilt the Crickhowell high street paving slab by paving slab, and it's now a thriving award-winning town centre. If you don't get a chance to hear her talk about how to go about this at 12.15 today, then be sure to grab the notes from a friend.

A Tim G Interlude
All this talk of politics makes me realise I should take a moment to talk of Tim Godfray. The time will come in October – unless a further extension is granted – when everyone at the BA will no longer have the option of popping down the corridor to ask Tim a question. On the politics of bookselling he taught everyone all that they know. We have sessions here today to celebrate his career and we will do so in full in the weeks ahead, but from October we have to fight for bookshops without him in our corner. And that feels daunting.

Conversations with our Partners in Publishing and Wholesaling
We've been having some big conversations with publishers and wholesalers on the subjects I've covered and there are more to come. Later on today you can hear the great progress we've been making in setting up some basic systems to ensure the independent sector is able to involve itself in the pre-order market.

Andy Rossiter and I have also spent a lot of time recently talking at length to many industry players about the way we are all ordering books.

To my mind this is the area we are most behind the times in the book industry. Many of the stock control systems used by the independent sector, whilst invaluable to what we do, do not allow for one-step electronic ordering to all of the major suppliers we're using. They don't reflect our realities. Those systems also don't offer easy ways to record what has been ordered from sales reps. Given where the country is technologically, booksellers and publishers are spending far too much time retyping ISBNs and sending one another data in forms that neither can easily manipulate. And that means books arrive slower. But we're working on it.

Conversations with Each Other - Support Professionally
As Meryl [Halls, BA md] will explain, we're still working hard at the BA on creating something akin to a university of bookselling. A way for all of us in this room and, even more deservedly, those counter-coverers you've abandoned to be here, to build bookselling skills remotely and continuously.

We should show more understanding of the day-to-day trickery involved in our profession – and I use the word profession advisedly.

We are blessed right now with floods of new entrants to bookselling from all kinds of different backgrounds. It hasn't always been this way and I for one find it truly awe-inspiring.

And we think it's time to recognise that informal advice in a Birmingham bar won't always cut it. After all, bookselling is a foreign language to the uninitiated.

Picture this. You leave your job as a hedge fund manager, brain surgeon, cabinet minister to pursue your bookselling dream and now you're suddenly faced with a world where someone hands you an AI sheet... and there's simply nothing intelligent about it.

You have to back-order your front list and return your mid-list (which was your front-list a few weeks ago).

People keep offering you proofs, but all they seem to prove is that it's a blessing no-one publishes actual books in trade paperback format anymore.

Unless they have French folds... whatever the hell they are.

Despite the language barrier, our new industry entrants are eager to learn and I for one am already learning a lot from them. We are, I believe, an industry which is very open to helping answer the questions of those new entrants and I think we've got the sharing of knowledge ball rolling faster and faster and long may it continue that every time we meet more booksellers come together and more first-timers join this open-invite club.

Support Emotionally
But the bigger conversation that could be had between bookselling peers is perhaps not the talk in the bar about window displays or why in the name of all that is good and true a bookseller should ever have to post a damaged book back to receive a credit.

"It's time we now had the courage and self-confidence to be more realistic in the way we portray our businesses"

Perhaps the bigger conversation is the one that's not so easy to have and so isn't had as often as it should. The one where for whatever reason you need to tell someone it's all a bit shit at the moment.

For many years we suffered from a negative media portrayal of bookshops – we were made out to be on our last legs. In response, I think many of us opening new shops had to be a constantly positive voice when we spoke to the press to counteract their negative assumptions.

But now the media, and publishers, recognise the strength and relevance of the high street again. So perhaps it's time we now had the courage and self-confidence to be more realistic in the way we portray our businesses – at least when we speak to each other, so as to make creating a shiny new bookshop less daunting for new booksellers.

Collectively we have created some of the most crucial hubs of togetherness, sense and knowledge that exist in our entirely non-sensical world. BUT sometimes sales can be a bit crap. And other times, if life's been kicking you in the peanuts, putting on the service show can be real tough.

We need to feel comfortable having conversations with each other about when business isn't going so well, so that we can help and support one another. About when you're simply not selling enough books to cover your costs right now. Or about when it suddenly is going well but you don't think you have enough hours in the day to manage the business.

Or, if you are running a shop alone, about how the pressure of doing so is really beginning to weigh heavy. And whilst it's a rewarding profession, it can be such a damn lonely one between the openings of the door. Especially early on.

Or perhaps you need a conversation that's nothing to do with your business at all. Maybe it's life that's not going so well. Maybe you need someone to talk to about that.

We have a vibrant, cohesive and resilient network now. On social media this Saturday night I saw different booksellers looking forward to the coming together of their tribe. We are a tribe. Anyone can join. Anyone who loves books – and even a few who don't. And we leave no-one behind.

So if you need some to turn to and you have no-one to turn to – or would simply prefer to turn to another bookseller rather than anyone else – then reach out. And if you're not sure who to reach out to then reach out first to me or to our tribal guardians at the BA. If you prefer, then call me and I'll either listen or find you the best person to listen. Or, call our friends at Retail Trust – an organisation we joined to increase the support offered to all of our members. Or, if you prefer, simply form your own WhatsApp groups at this conference or join the BA Facebook Group.

One last thing with my Mr B's hat on.

And it's a thing that, in a way, weaves together some of these conversations - about the state of the planet, the need for dialogue with government, the need to learn from our younger generations and our role as leaders at the heart of our vexed communities.

At Mr B's on 20 September we will be striking in solidarity with the inspiring young people of this country. I'd urge booksellers up and down the country to consider whether they might do the same. Check out for the details.

With these small actions we can put things right - just as when you're selling a book to a kid who's fallen out of love with reading and so make a new customer; or when you talk to the shop next door about how to attract more visitors.

As Matilda also said

Even if you're little, you can do a lot, you

Mustn't let a little thing like, 'little' stop you.

Nic Bottomley is proprietor of Mr B's in Bath.