(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the book trade?
The last two decades or so have been a turbulent time for the book trade. It has seen the emergence and growth of specialist bookselling giants like Waterstones, which now dominate high street book selling in the UK. Things haven't all gone their way though - the UK arm of US giant Borders went out of business in the late 2000s and Waterstones itself almost collapsed at the beginning of the 2010s.
The 1990s saw the demise of the Net Book Agreement, which had previously allowed publishers to control the retail prices of their books. This opened the door for retailers to begin discounting books as a way of attracting customers - something that many of the larger book sellers now do regularly. The Works is a national chain of discount book shops with around 300 stores in the UK.
The end of the Net Book Agreement also encouraged many other types of retailer to enter the book trade - supermarkets in particular increased their ranges of best sellers, gardening books and cookery titles. Internet retailers, the largest of which is by far the international giant Amazon, have also established themselves as major discounters, and e-commerce has become a major force in the book trade.
How does this affect the small book shop?
This isn't all bad news for the smaller book shop. While it's certainly true that new competition keeps smaller book shops on their toes, the events of the last decade - and the huge success of certain books, such as the Harry Potter series and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code - caught the public eye and raised the profile of the book industry. More recently, the publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman saw many independents run imaginative promotions and they were rewarded with excellent sales as many book buyers seemed keen to buy this title from an actual bookshop rather than look for the cheapest price online. Initiatives aimed at improving literacy and getting more reading books into schools have also helped. A modern, efficiently run and well focused independent book shop should still be able to carve out a niche for itself in this market.
The Local Book Shops website is aimed at independent book sellers in the UK and Ireland and aims to help them compete against online giants like Amazon. It puts book buyers in touch with their local independent book seller and enables them to place orders online. Hive is another website set up to support a network of independent booksellers. Meanwhile, Amazon's own Marketplace feature enables independent book sellers - including used book specialists - to advertise and sell their products to Amazon users. And the Booksellers Association works very hard to safeguard and promote the role of the independent book shop, including their biggest ever cross-trade promotion Books are my Bag.
In 2014 and 2015, American author James Patterson made available £250,000 (in each year) to independent bookshops in the UK with dedicated children's sections. Qualifying bookshops could apply for a grant of up to £5,000 each.
Technology and e-books
Computer and internet technology have revolutionised the way books are sold - even for the small independent high street book shop. Book sellers can now communicate with their suppliers electronically, keep computerised stock records, organise returns and use EPOS systems to keep close track of their stock. The Booksellers Association plays a very important role in helping book sellers to adapt to new technology as it becomes available. It also provides a range of IT services for its members, including the Batch centralised payment system.
After they became commonplace at the end of the 2000s, e-book sales increased rapidly and at the start of the 2010s were predicted to largely replace printed books. Google moved into e-books and offers millions of titles through its Google Play e-book store. They also digitised thousands of existing book titles, enabling their users to search their full text through Google Books. In 2012 Amazon reported that e-book sales had overtaken printed book sales in the UK just two years after the launch of the Kindle e-reader, underlining just how rapidly e-books were gaining ground.
However, the growth in e-books appears to have stalled, at least for the time being. After reaching a plateau in 2013, sales fell back in 2015 before a more substantial drop in 2016. The decline in e-book sales continued in 2017 and 2018 while sales of print books increased by about the same amount as e-book sales fell. Consumers are thought to be suffering from 'screen fatigue' and see print books as a way of escaping and having a rest from them. The turnaround was helped by the popularity of children's books, biographies and cookery books, all of which are selling well and are not best suited to a digital format. Also, in a digital throwaway age people have come to value print books as something that can be kept.
There are various options available to enable independents to sell e-books and readers too. The Booksellers Association offers independent booksellers the Indie eBook shop, which was built specifically to enable members to provide an eBook option to their customers, and to give booksellers the opportunity to participate in the e-book market.
An unwelcome side effect of the rise of the e-book is an increase in piracy - the book trade is beginning to feel the effects of digital piracy which has for some years blighted the music industry.
Keeping up with developments
Joining a good trade association is an excellent way of keeping up with developments in your industry as they happen. The Booksellers Association represents the great majority of book retailers in the UK, from the big chains down to the smallest independents. To find out more, visit the Booksellers Association website.
Subscribing to a trade journal is another excellent way of staying in touch. The Bookseller is the main trade journal for the book trade and subscription to the print journal includes free access to premium online services, such as a daily news email and a weekly careers email. Further information is available from The Bookseller website.