A Chat With the BA’s Meryl Halls

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Among the international participants at last month’s Winter Institute was Meryl Halls, head of membership services for the Booksellers Association of the United Kingdom & Ireland. Halls recently spoke to BTW via e-mail about her experience at Wi6, the value of collective brainstorming, the challenges facing booksellers in the U.K., e-books, and more.

BTW: Why do you think an exchange of ideas among international booksellers, such as occurred at the Winter Institute, is important?

Meryl Halls: It’s so important to share best practice. We all encourage our members to be proactive and to share good ideas, so it’s incumbent on us in the associations to do the same. We can learn so much from each other – it stops us from reinventing the wheel, allows some really creative pooling of ideas, and the sparks that fly when different cultures come together can be truly invigorating. For instance, we have embraced IndieBound, looked with great interest at Above the Treeline and Edelweiss, and been stimulated by all these new initiatives. Similarly, in the U.K. we have a long-term success story with gift vouchers in National Book Tokens, and a more recent success in the supply chain with Batch.co.uk. It’s great to be able to adapt and utilize each other’s developments.

In terms of the booksellers from different countries getting together, it is the same process – there is a lot of reassurance that comes from realizing we share common challenges; that makes you feel less isolated. Then there is the benefit of listening to how different individuals in similar circumstances have come to a different conclusion. You can sit in a session about author events and it all sounds very similar, but then you hear just one nugget about how a U.S. bookseller has done something that would be radical in the U.K., and it sets off a chain reaction in your head. It can often be the simplest things. But, basically, it’s all about the exchange of ideas – that’s what creates the energy. It certainly created energy in the U.K. delegation to hear about the ABA Google eBooks™ interface. This is all new to us in the U.K., and we are watching with extreme interest how you guys manage it!

BTW: What are some of the challenges facing independent booksellers in the U.K. and how are they responding? Are e-books affecting the industry as much as they are in the U.S.?

M.H.: Huge challenges from e-books – nobody quite knows what to do about it yet, certainly in the indie sector, though there is a lot of curiosity, interest, and willingness to do the necessary work. We are watching the U.S. situation keenly, and booksellers are starting to think about developing their websites to accommodate e-commerce, and maybe getting e-readers in to investigate.

The cost of running high street premises is an ongoing huge challenge – occupancy costs in the U.K. are comparatively very high, and rent and rate increases can cause booksellers enormous problems. With the recession has also come a squeeze on lending, and that can cause big issues for business, especially small businesses, who are looking for investment or short-term financial help.

And, of course, everywhere there is a contraction in spending by consumers and a general concern about jobs, about public spending cuts, and the like. In the U.K., more, we think, than anywhere else, there is also a tremendous pincer pressure on independent bookselling from both Internet bookselling and non-traditional outlets selling books (like supermarkets). In many ways it is a great thing – books are pretty sexy and ubiquitous; they are sold everywhere, but they are also price-promoted pretty comprehensively, and it can be really hard for indies to compete on price. Many don’t, but they do create other reasons for consumers to shop in the local bookshop – service, community, all the stuff we know via IndieBound – but it can be hard work.

BTW: What stood out most for you at last month’s Winter Institute? Do you host similar events in the U.K.?

M.H.: We run an Independent Booksellers Forum, which organizes many similar events on specific topics around the year, and in a bigger annual conference in September. It’s incredibly similar in feel and motivation to the Winter Institute – but much smaller! The Winter Institute felt really comfortable and familiar in tone to all of us, with a lot of mutual support going on, the same as in the U.K. Booksellers gain so much from talking to each other, and there was a palpable sense of strength coming from that joining together. We really enjoyed that, as well as just talking to booksellers about what is going on in the U.S.

And key was the full-on nature of the e-books debate. That was a real standout. Two of the U.K. booksellers bought a Nook as part of their research into e-books, and we have all come back to the BA in London with tons of suggestions for how we need to work together to help U.K. booksellers get ready. And, finally, the size of the event and the publisher engagement – all totally fantastic and truly inspiring!

BTW: Since the BA launched IndieBound in the U.K. last May, what has been the response?

M.H.: It is without doubt one of the most positive projects we have ever done. Booksellers have LOVED it, even those who don’t always join in with other initiatives. They love the message; they love the positive position it has taken up; the quirky, intelligent and literate Point of Sale – everything really!

Customers have given booksellers great feedback, and the POS has had unprecedented positive comments. We have built on that POS with our own seasonal POS, our own Christmas books catalogue (published as an IndieBound product), and are using IndieBound to push forward all sorts of initiatives in the U.K. It is also now becoming a recognized brand amongst U.K. publishers, with very positive brand connotations, especially among those with a U.S. arm, whose colleagues are already familiar with the U.S. version. It has been universally popular and has created a new energy and a new focus for the BA and its indie members, and for our members to use as a connection with their customers. So thanks very much!!

Read an earlier BTW interview with Lee Trentadue, vice president of the Canadian Booksellers Association.