Sunday, 9 October 2011
A bookseller's view? - Julia Jones
Years ago, back in the 1980s, I opened a bookshop. It was in an Essex village - far too small (according to Publisher Association guidelines) to support a general bookshop selling new, non-specialist titles. But that was the village where I liked to do my shopping and it didn't have a bookshop so, if I wanted to buy books at the same time as I shopped for food, china, newspapers, furnishing fabrics, saddlery (yes there were all those shops in the same short high street) someone need to open a bookshop and, as a young mother, I decided that that someone might as well be me.
As well as books my shop sold greeting cards and local artists' paintings: acted as the box office for the operatic society and after a while began to dabble in local interest publishing. I didn't get rich but I didn't go bust either and after about ten years, I was able to sell the shop on to a friend who'd been running it while I researched and wrote a biography of Essex detective novelist Margery Allingham.
So much was different in the book trade then - there was the Net Book Agreement which gave small shops the chance to compete on customer service rather than the stark differentials of price. All the same, if any business was quite as tiny as mine, it never had any spare money to invest in anything other than more new books. If we wanted to innovate we had to be a bit -- I was going to say Heath Robinson but I'll modify that to Wallace and Grommitt.
There was teleordering, for instance. Anyone remember teleordering? You probably don't if you weren't in the trade. It was a mid-1980s attempt to speed up customer orders and regular re-stockng by using dedicated electronic terminals. Just what a shop like mine needed if we were to carry on amazing our customers by the speed with which we supplied their books. The terminals were far too expensive of course -- but I had a BBC 'B' computer -- and with just a little ingenuity it could be linked into the mainstream system. Could do my stock control on it as well, and type invoices, produce catalogues, write letters...
Twenty five years later the book trade looks different in so many ways, yet a venture such as Authors Electric demonstrates that technology can still be adapted to serve the needs of the individual enterprise as well as the multinational corporation. Thank you for allowing me to join. I think it's going to be fun.
I have to admit to having been very slow to begin publishing my books electronically rather than in the much-loved physical format that filled my shelves and my shop window and my customers' shopping baskets (on a good day) -- and which still spills across every surface of my house. If it hadn't been for the good services of Jan Needle's technologically-talented son Matti Gardner, I'd probably be in the embarrassing position of writing this blog with the project still at the 'wouldn't it be a good idea if ...' stage.
As it is, my sailing adventure novel The Salt-Stained Book is up there on Amazon in its Kindle incarnation and also sitting on my desktop as a ePUB ready for what might be a more congenial journey -- congenial to an ex-high street bookseller, that is.
As a bookbuyer I'll buy from anywhere -- from Amazon, from Waterstones, from the independents, from Oxfam, from a box in someone's garden next to the windfall apples -- and I want to continue to have that choice. My own shop finally closed last year -- it had diversified into selling dainty gifts and Belgian chocolates alongside the books and cards and so struggled past its 30th birthday. That village high street is a less varied and lively place - in my opinion.
So, how to publish electronically and not ignore retail choice and the independent bookseller? Firstly by getting The Salt-Stained ePUB Book into Waterstones who are putting a lot of effort into their internet selling and where ebook sales are gradually increasing. This can be done quite straightforwardly for £35 via a company called ebook partnership. Secondly by getting the book stocked in Gardners Digital Warehouse. Here the royalty rates are not so good -- in fact they are the same trade discount rates that wholesalers always charge publishers -- but the market is different. Gardners supply the Apple ibookstore but also Foyles and Blackwells and Tesco ebooks and public libraries and, potentially most interesting of all, Hive.
Hive is an initiative to which 350 independent booksellers have signed up to since its unveiling at the London Book Fair and which is intended to make it possible for even a tiny shop to supply its customers with ebooks, CDs, DVDs. It is also intended as the platform for Google ebooks in the UK. Big promotional impetus is planned for Hive from later this month when the Google deal is finally clinched. Probably around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair. I hope it succeeds - no idea whether it will -- but I thought I'd like my ebook to be in the same warehouse, just in case ... Anyone else there already?