Bookselling, Conferences

Back Together Again: The Booksellers Association Conference 2021

After more than eighteen months of a face-to-face industry events famine, Back Together Again, the 2021 BA Conference which started with the Gardners Trade Show on Sunday 12th September and continued with the conference itself the following day, was an absolute triumph. It demonstrated that independent booksellers are not only alive and well, but despite all the obstacles put in their way during the pandemic, they’re flourishing – and kicking. As the conference programme unfolded, it became clear that the BA has played no small part in both orchestrating the survival and promoting the bounce-back of independent booksellers throughout the UK and Ireland since the catalogue of extraordinary events which began with the cancellation of the London Book Fair in March 2020.

Andy Rossiter the current President of the BA, raised a laugh when he said he was the first president to have introduced himself to its members eighteen months into a two-year tenure. A former Waterstones employee who with his wife now owns three bookshops in the English / Welsh border country, he described their lucky escape in managing to pull out of a deal on a fourth just as the pandemic struck.  He had huge praise for Meryl Halls, MD of the BA, and Nick Bottomley, who had co-ordinated “intense rounds” of talks with publishers on behalf of booksellers throughout all five of the BA’s constituent countries caught up in the fall-out from the pandemic.

Meryl herself compared the last eighteen months with Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling I am, I am, I am, in which the author describes her fifteen brushes with death – and emerges from each of them triumphant and very much alive. She said she had watched with awe as booksellers recalibrated their businesses.  Booksellers have emerged from various lockdowns as braver, bolder – and greater in number.  The BA now has more than 1,000 bookseller members, most of whom are running or working in independent bookshops.  This almost restores the membership to its 2013 levels.

Chris Gregory, of the Institute of Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University, showed how his consultancy had teamed up with the BA to help revive and develop High Street bookselling. Footfall in bookshops is still only at 80% of pre-pandemic levels, but it is improving all the time, helped by careful research and analysis into what turns a good bookseller into a superlative one.  Factors include opening times (the longer the better), clear methods of book classification, strong and original leadership, offering welcome at all times (e.g., by allowing anyone to use the lavatories, regardless of whether or not they are a customer) and being a force for good in the local community.

Richard Osman, TV personality turned successful crime writer (if you haven’t yet read The Thursday Murder Club, I recommend it wholeheartedly), spoke next.  He was eloquent in his praise for what bricks-and-mortar bookshops have achieved: “You have competition that undercuts you at every turn and yet you are taking market share from them – this is something extraordinary – it happens in no other industry.”  He said his journey after publishing The Thursday Murder Club had been a remarkable one and that meeting real booksellers was a “genuine joy”.

The theme of booksellers-fighting-back-against-internet-giants was continued by Mark Thornton, Bookshop Partnership Manager and Kiri Inglis, Editorial and Marketing Manager, of Bookshop.org, a company that introduced itself to the UK ten months ago (it has been operational in the USA for somewhat longer) to enable bricks-and-mortar booksellers to extend their reach to people who might not be able to visit their shops, extend their range by enabling them to offer titles they don’t stock and extend their hours by enabling them to sell books when their shops are closed. It also offers exciting solutions for individual authors and for publishers which are well worth investigating.

Fever Pitch, the one-hour session in which publishers pitch their top Christmas and spring titles, was as vibrant and entertaining as usual.  Many of the titles also appear in the BA Christmas catalogue, but some of the bigger books featured are not scheduled for publication until next April or May. Not all the publishers were big, powerful ones: the Independent Alliance presented on behalf of several small publishers. Fairlight Books showed some titles.  Fairlight enjoyed a particularly good conference – unusually, its staff manned a stand throughout the entirety of the event, showcasing beautiful and original titles and speaking to people who dropped by with great courtesy and good humour.

Among the many points worth noting from Fever Pitch: historical fiction is in the ascendant; crime and literary fiction continue to flourish; memoirs and books about lifestyle choices are likely to be big this Christmas. It is also fascinating that many publishers now offer special editions or specially-signed books to enable independent booksellers to make unique offers to their customers.

A further conference highlight was In Conversation, a debate between Meryl Halls and Allison Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, which was chaired by Philip Jones, Editor of The Bookseller. Allison took up her appointment 8 days after America accepted that a pandemic was in progress. She said that it quickly exposed some cracks: it became apparent that 20% of the USA’s bookshops were in danger of folding. However, booksellers have received huge and concerted commitment from local communities.  Sales are bow 75% up against 2020; but additional costs caused by the pandemic still remain high.

Meryl agreed that there was great cause for optimism about the future of bookselling. During the pandemic, “the whole world had had to live with not having a High Street” and there could have been no better way of demonstrating the importance of “shop local”.

Meryl Halls talking to Allison Hill

Emma Bradshaw, Head of campaigns at the BA, gave a spirited Bookshop Day Update, during which she displayed this year’s Bookshop Day bags.  Bookshop Day this year is on Friday 8th October.

And then the formal part of the programme was over. A veteran of many conferences and events, I can truly say that never have I gone away from one feeling as happy and uplifted as I did from this one. It wasn’t only because it was the first opportunity to socialise with like-minded people for eighteen months – though that, of course played its part – but also because it was exhilarating to feel part of something so creative, successful, ambitious, and – yes – in a good way, defiant.

This blog post strays a little from Gold Leaf’s heartland territory of academic publishing and bookselling. Is it possible to draw conclusions for academic booksellers and publishers from Back Together Again? I would say so: my own takeaways include make all your publications, whatever their nature, beautiful; believe in and love what you sell; love your customers even more; and above all, never accept defeat. Generic lessons for all booksellers, publishers, authors and “others”, whatever part of the industry they inhabit.

And in the UK and Ireland we can burst with pride in the reassurance that the Booksellers Association is always there, working tirelessly to back up all this endeavour. 

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

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