FROM THE PULPIT
I NDEPENDENTBOOKSELLERS ARE used to pundits speaking unasked on their behalf, but this year has seen an unusual surge of concern. In a recent survey, The Guardian took the unprecedented step of actually talking to some of us. Lately there’s been a lot of hype about the so-called Independent Alliance between a group of independent publishers, which Andrew Franklin, an Alliance publisher (Profile), describes as a ‘small but highly significant and controversial change’ that ‘could save small booksellers’, who (according to an article in The Bookseller) face ‘extinction within fifteen years’. The aim of the Independent Alliance is ‘to provide a range of benefits that will enable you to forcefully [sic] promote your business, with greater access to the kind of support the chains take for granted’. More specifically, an increased discount is offered on selected titles so that independents can offer three-for-two deals. In addition, a few posters and other marketing claptrap are being made available. This makes the publishers concerned feel good, and look good to the uninitiated, but it makes no difference to me as an independent bookseller. And recalling how no publisher lifted a finger to defend the Net Book Agreement, apart from John Calder, I am inevitably inclined to interpret it as a marketing ploy oiled by crocodile tears. For while they are busy patting themselves on the back for paying attention to independents, they are still trying to make their job easier by whipping us into line. I had a circular email yesterday from Canongate, one of the Alliance members, announcing a book as ‘The Book Everyone’s Talking About’. Why would I care? I want to find out if it’s any good, not whether other people are jumping over a cliff after it. I received a ‘Summer Reading’ order form ‘to enable you to make up the 3for-2 offer’. The Alliance asserts that by offering this it is ‘bringing new life and a fighting spirit to the independent retail sector’. Perhaps it’s benignly meant, but the implication that we should be trying to do the same things as the chains reflects their fixed ideas about bookselling rather than how independent shops function. No disrespect intended to Waterstone’s, but why would we want our shop to look like a puny version of theirs? Our customers would leave in droves. And if our book lists consisted of books that publishers wanted us to sell and happened to be offering cheaply, instead of books chosen by us with our customers in mind, they would be right to leave us. It is symptomatic of the ills of the book trade that the Alliance should flood us with the language of supermarkets in their attempt, ostensibly, to help us compete. They speak as if they are countering a deplorable trend, but they do more to foster the current climate with their aggressive policies than to dispel it. Marketing departments, with their bland and ludicrous language of
J OHNDE F ALBE Defending the Independent
hyperbole, have scant value for independents: they grandly assume they know what we want – namely, what everybody else wants, which is perfectly circular, perfectly absurd and perfectly useless. I need to know about the books, not the promotion plans. Since the collapse of the Net
Book Agreement it has been plain that independents couldn’t expect to compete on price, and all efforts in that quarter are misdirected. The reasons for which people still visit independent shops may be many (efficiency, flexibility, location, ambience, staff, eccentricity), but the primary one is taste. By way of example, our second-best-selling book this year is Written Livesby Javier Marías. Canongate didn’t tell us about this book: I saw it listed in a catalogue about three weeks before publication and asked for a copy. Its success has nothing to do with marketing, everything to do with reading. There was another Canongate book in which I was interested and I asked three times for something to read in advance, in vain: we have sold just one copy. Another Alliance book we’ll do well with this year is Andrew O’Hagan’s superb Be Near Me, which Faber declare that they are promoting through independent bookshops. But this statement is vacuous unless supported by proofs. Mine was sent by a periodical (this one), for review. Ironically, Random House, a large corporation, is much more responsive. Editors there are relatively accessible and their natural sense of how the independent sector operates hasn’t been undermined by marketing clichés. Looking at a print-out of our twenty bestselling hardbacks this year, I see that I’ve read eleven of them and reviewed a further five. The same exercise with our ten bestselling paperbacks reveals that I have read four, reviewed two, written one, and written an introduction for the top seller (Russian Conspirators in Siberia, which has not been reviewed anywhere and is therefore unusual.) It’s not simply a question of vanity: the books we sell most of are those in which we take an interest. Nevertheless, the quantities are not vast (250 Written Lives; 100 Russian Conspirators): we are selling across a much broader range than most chains, and on any given day few books sell more than a single copy. It might suit publishers better if we sold more copies of fewer books (on the chain model) but it wouldn’t suit our customers. However pig-headed it may seem, we must insist that we know more about our customers than publishers do (who are not noted for their expenditure at bookshops anyway, and in some cases it is charitable to suppose they ever read at all). Not that questions of rent, terms, location and so forth aren’t important, but woe betide us if our selections are driven by what publishers want us to promote rather than by our own tastes. And if we have to work hard to make it succeed, why should we expect it to be otherwise?
LITERARY REVIEW September 2006