A Q&A With Tim Godfray of the Booksellers Association of the U.K. and Ireland

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Tim Godfray, CEO of the Booksellers Association of the United Kindom and Ireland, visited the American Booksellers Association’s office this week and sat down with BTW to discuss independent bookselling in the U.K., its current challenges, and its most successful promotions.

Bookselling This Week: What is the state of bookselling in general, and independent bookselling specifically, in the U.K. and Ireland right now?

Tim Godfray: It’s been a difficult, challenging, tough trading period this past year, but we believe that we are in a better place today than we were a year ago. I think you would be very surprised to hear the upbeat-ness that is evident with so many of our members, particularly the independent booksellers. We are not looking at the end of the printed book. We are not looking at the end of bookshops. There has been a perceived change in that publishers are much more supportive of bookshops; and consumers, too, realize that it is really beneficial to communities to have bookshops on High Streets.

BTW: What are some of the current trends in the book business in the U.K. and where do you see the bookselling industry going in the coming years?

TG: If you look at the Nielsen numbers, you’ll find that printed books have fallen year-to-date compared to the previous year. But the percentage decrease from 2014 against 2013 is considerably smaller than if you look at 2013 compared to 2012, which I think is encouraging. E-books account, in our country, for about 17 percent of total sales, and the e-book market is expanding. All that business isn’t necessarily coming through the physical bookshops. Amazon, in particular, is increasing its market share. Commentators believe that Amazon accounts for over 90 percent of the total e-book market, which is considerable.

There is an awareness that we have to work extremely hard to develop various business strategies, particularly those which the big Internet booksellers find it difficult easily to emulate. U.K. and Irish bookshops have focused a lot on developing author events, on developing relationships with authors, on having reading groups and book clubs, on going out to schools, and having cafés. We have seen bookshops developing from just having books on their shelves to attracting consumers by providing a memorable shopping experience. Bookshops are magical places — the best places to discover books.

Independent bookshops have declined in numbers recently. I don’t believe that the number of independent shops is necessarily the key thing to focus on because many of the independent businesses have increased the square footage they devote to books and have expanded many aspects of their operations.

BTW: The BA membership model is different from ABA’s in that it represents the interests of all booksellers, including chains. Is there ever a conflict about what the organization should be doing for independents versus chains?

TG: We are different from the American Booksellers Association in that we don’t just have independents in our membership; we represent so many different types of businesses, including the bookshop chains, independent booksellers, Internet booksellers, supermarkets, and wholesalers — so from the very big to the very small, from the general to the specialist.

I think that the big bookselling companies believe that it’s good for the market, generally, to have a strong independent sector, and the independent booksellers believe that the sector needs strong bookshop chains on the High Street.

BTW: Has Amazon had as significant an impact on the U.K. book business as it has had in the U.S.? Who or what are the other major competitors for bricks-and-mortar booksellers in the U.K.?

TG: Amazon has had a huge impact. Besides Amazon, I’m going to say piracy is one of the biggest challenges. The fact that it is now possible for people to be able to get content without paying anything for it if they’re computer savvy, that’s a very big worry.

Another is the prospect of free e-book lending by public libraries. Remote e-book lending creates an arrangement where you can get e-book content from your home or workplace at the click of a mouse without having to pay anything. Our argument is that if it’s so easy to be able to get hold of book content for free, why on Earth would you want to go to a bookstore to buy that title?

BTW: How do the independent bookstore members of the BA sell e-books?

TG: The Booksellers Association has its own e-book platform. It has 350,000 titles on it and bookstores can download e-book titles from it. But booksellers — and the independents, especially — have the option of selling Kobo hardware and Kobo content or getting books from Gardeners Hive. It’s probably fair to say that the number of booksellers that feel passionately about selling e-books is not that huge. It’s a bit of an ask when booksellers could more easily devote the space to selling stationery or non-book products. Independent booksellers have been selling e-books, certainly the chains have, but there is considerable room for expansion.

BTW: What are some of the marketing or advertising activities underway in the U.K. to promote bricks-and-mortar bookstores to consumers? How successful has the Books Are My Bag campaign been?

TG: The Books Are My Bag campaign was very successful. And at the end of the day, what we’re doing is devising frameworks and we leave individual businesses to work within these frameworks and achieve more than if they had tried to do something by going it alone. The bookshops stocked these canvas bags with the brand message, and they could either give the bags away or they could sell them (they got a free supply and they could order additional bags). Booksellers’ customers started to spread the brand message, and then we got celebrities to be photographed with the campaign bag. For us, what was really heartening was that these celebrities agreed to be photographed with the campaign bag and we could use that image in any way we wanted, without charge, to help promote reading. What it also enabled booksellers to do was to have a conversation with customers. And it was timely, too, because it started the buildup of relationships for the busy Christmas period. It also got booksellers working together with authors. It was a genuine cross-industry promotion. We aim to build on it, and each year we’ll be doing different things.

We do Independent Booksellers Week, which has been very successful indeed. Like yourselves, we have collectibles, which are books or allied products that are exclusive, produced by publishers just for independent bookshops for that week.

One of our biggest promotions is World Book Day. One of our companies in the BA group prints 14 million special World Book Day book tokens. These are given to children through their schools and then the children take these World Book Day book tokens into the shops around World Book Day and they can exchange the token either for a free paperback book, which has been produced especially for the promotion by the publishers, or they can get a pound off virtually any purchase in the shop. It’s more powerful than just seeing an advertisement on a magazine page: it actually encourages children with their parents to go physically into a bookshop. World Book Day has been for us a really, really significant success.

BTW: What do you think are some of the benefits of booksellers from around the world coming together to share ideas and concerns at industry events, like Winter Institute?

TG: The issues seem to be pretty common but how countries tackle the issues tend often to be different. To be able to talk about what the issues are and determine whether somebody else has got a better idea than you have for dealing with something, or if a country has put together a really good promotional initiative which you can also use, is fantastic. For all of us who run good booksellers associations, stealing unashamedly from each other is welcome. We each get a real benefit from having a group of people who’ve all got the same aims and purpose — and that’s to try to improve the position of the booksellers that we represent.