Why would you want to work with Independent bookshops?

By Meryl Halls

The indie bookselling sector is in a state of some flux, and is also a bit schizophrenic about how it sees itself.  It’s weathering a brutal retail recession, there are pressures on rent, rates and high street infrastructure, as well as the onslaught of ebooks and discounting from what’s still quaintly called the non-traditional sector (online and supermarkets).  They are small businesses, run – mainly – for love of the products they sell. Clever publishers looking for a deft, creative and energetic partner could do much worse than cultivate their relationships with them.

This is an oddly buoyant sector – as remarked on by more than one commentator after the recent BA Conference – and the thriving shops now are lean, commercially acute, business-savvy, often peopled by the chain diaspora, creative, hardworking, and committed to books. They are instinctive retailers – and thoroughly embedded in their communities.  It’s here that lies the key to independent bookselling success.  So fleet of foot have indies become that the strangest combinations are now almost de rigeur – books partnered with coffee, with ice cream, with homeware, jewellery, antiques, chocolate, furniture, art, theatre box offices, games, puzzles – even with hats!  If you engage, delight and entertain your community, you are much more likely to prosper, and the indies know this.

I work closely with the BA’s IBF Advisory Panel, 10 fantastic independents that include Patrick Neale, Jane Streeter, Ron Johns, Andrew Cant, Andy Rossiter, Sally Johnson, Sarah Waddington, Catherine Hetherington and Matthew Clarke.  Between us, we drive initiatives and projects for the indie sector, and these bookshops have some great examples of how imaginative partnering can work.

One of the most pleasing for us recently was when Ben Gutcher at Hodder decided to promote Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers exclusively through independents, a move welcome with glee by the indies I spoke to.  We used the IndieBound logo on the press adverts, and a link to the site for a Bookshop Search for those keen to find their local bookshop instead of shop online – it’s not all that snazzy, but it makes the point – and we like the point being made!

Some initiatives we’ve had for Independent Booksellers Week have worked brilliantly. Walker Books ran a “Find Wally” competition this year, where the first 100 bookshops to sign up received a full pack of large Wally, 10 small Wallys and lots of stickers and participation sheets for children.

The idea was that the bookshop hid mini-Wallys in other retailers in the town, and launched the search to find them with customers.  It worked perfectly in so many ways – it connected the bookshop with other retailers, it drove customers into the bookshop, and then into other shops, it created a sense of excitement in the town and a children’s activity around the bookshop. It also created costume character photo opportunities which are so important for local press coverage.

We would love more of the same (and similar) for Independent Booksellers Week next year – running 29th June to 6th July 2013 – it’s a great way to connect with a large number of indies, and really raise the profile of your books and authors in the indie sector.  When indies really get behind a book, it can have a huge impact – look at the Christmas bestsellers every year, which always nestles an unexpected hit, sold quietly but effectively through independents.

Beyond the bigger campaigns, even individual shops can make a disproportionate impact.  Jane Streeter at the Bookcase in Lowdham has had great success with the new Ben Fogle – she ran an event for 450 people this summer at the Lowdham Book Festival (which she helps to run), received extra discount on the paperback from the publisher, and simultaneously offered signed copies of his new hardback for pre-orders placed at the Festival.  There are dozens of independents running festivals, racking up substantial sales for featured books, and they are almost always up for a challenge if you have an idea to take to them.

Mark Thornton at Mostly Books has taken an innovative step forward by partnering with Angry Robots (Osprey Publishing) and selling ebook and paper books in a bundle – exclusively in-store.  Mark has attracted new custom, and the publisher is creating a marketing concept that works for a high street bookshop in a pretty counter-intuitive fashion!

The point I’d really reinforce to publishers is that you should always think about the independents in your marketing cycle  – increasingly they are looking to organize author tours collectively (and the BA could help with this), they are often deeply experienced in events management – and if you take them an idea, they can make it work because only THEY have to make the decision.

 

If you’d like find out more about working with independents, or taking part in Independent Booksellers Week, email meryl.halls@booksellers.org.uk or visit http://www.independentbooksellersweek.org.uk for information on the 2012 campaign.

 

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