British booksellers catch the French malaise
June 6, 2013 | 11:28 am
There’s nothing like a bad idea for going viral, and it seems the British Booksellers Association (BA) took a sere and yellowed leaf out of the French government’s book in calling for government curbs on Amazon, as reported in The Guardian. Tim Godfray, the Association’s CEO, was quoted in the article as saying that UK booksellers identify Amazon as “the main threat to their business.” But aside from demonizing Amazon, Godfray seems just as barren of ideas as the French on how to revitalize bookstores.
Previous gestures by the BA include support for Independent Booksellers Week with exclusives from U.S. author Ann Patchett, “who has written an essay in praise of bookshops,” and other print-only offerings. Godfray in the past has called Britain’s independent bookshops: “cultural and community beacons in the high street,” while warning that Amazon has “the ability to destroy the book trade as we know it.”
To his credit, he has also urged that “steps should be taken” to ensure that Amazon opens up its platform to open standards such as EPUB 3—although the Kindle is completely open to Mobi sideloads anyway. But the BA is no stranger to restrictive practices. It operates an Embargoed Titles Listing with the Publishers Association to prevent early sales of titles ahead of their UK release date. “Early selling of major titles can undermine the effort of booksellers, publishers, wholesalers and other intermediaries in their attempt to create media and public interest around the Embargo Date,” goes the official explanation. Those are the same protectionist corporatist instincts that eventually herded the pirate-phobic publishing industry into Amazon’s hands.
Godfray has also warned in the past that “Amazon has the ability from data mining its consumer data to know what its customers buy, when they buy it, what books they actually read on their Kindles.” Yet isn’t that where the independent booksellers, with their close-up-and-personal contacts to customers, are supposed to thrive? And who better than the BA itself to provide those independents with shared data mining platforms to achieve better results, let alone advising independents on how to get to know their customers better and actually keep notes of their tastes and interests?
I happen to think that there are quite a few ways for independent bookstores to survive and thrive in the Amazon era—using the same promotional guerrilla tactics that have served the self-publishing and independent author communities so well. I also happen to think that the BA and its publishing industry peers are the last people to be able to deliver those solutions to booksellers. As Godfray’s apparent priorities confirm, their hearts and minds are just not in the right place.
Just for starters, here’s 28 ideas to help save bookstores. But more of that anon. Meantime, Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, was quoted in The Guardian article calling on the UK government “to look more proactively to protect the whole high street,” and spoke at the end in envious tones on the official Continental attitude towards books. “Books are thought of as high culture in France and Germany; they’re not really here.”
You do have to wonder what the UK government does think of as high culture if it doesn’t include books. But then, if that’s a reflection of British attitudes, is it any wonder that no one goes into UK bookshops? The British government might be better off spending money on education than on protectionism.