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    Browsing in tomorrow's bookshops

    Published on 27/03/2014 by David Birkett

    The Great British Bookshop was delighted to sponsor a Byte the Book panel discussion on March 24th at The Ivy, which asked: What’s the Future for Book Selling in the Digital Age?  Byte the Book is an organisation whose laudable aim is to encourage, inform and inspire writers and connect them and other book trade members with each other and with developments – especially technological – in the book world.   The panellists, chaired by Harper Collins’ Head of Events Sam Missingham, (pictured, second left) were: Jon Woolcott,  formerly of Waterstones and now Buying and Marketing Director at Stanford’s book, map and travel shop;  Julia Kingsford, formerly of Foyle’s and now with the e-content provider Valobox and Simon Edwards, (pictured, left) who runs the The Little Ripon Bookshop, providing a  rich mix of backgrounds in, and approaches to, book-selling and publishing.  As the panel responded to prompts from Sam, various themes emerged, with the audience frequently (and sometimes uncomfortably) engaged on a straw poll basis, before questions were invited and the discussion was further broadened.  A live Tweet wall, glowing eerily behind the speakers, was refreshed throughout the proceedings by new 140-character packets of observation.

    Byte the Book bookselling

    Julia launched proceedings with a provocative brace of questions, namely (paraphrased) ‘was Amazon an exceptional content provider across many geographical regions’ and ‘were there negative aspects to its success’.  This led on to a discussion about show-rooming (browsing physically and buying on-line) reverse show-rooming and the decline of physical bookshops (with the number of independents in the UK having just fallen below 1,000).  Simon observed that people liked the idea of having a bookshop in their town, even if they didn’t use it themselves, and waxed lyrical on the satisfaction of hand-selling in a bookshop, and on the relationship with the community it enables.  Jon urged caution about becoming too preoccupied with sales channels at the expense of developing as broad a reading community as possible.  All agreed that the book trade needed to reach out to less-frequent book-buyers, and Julia was passionate about developing new ways to share and present book content, observing that  ‘anyone in the room could be the next Amazon’, if they devised an imaginative-enough content presentation mechanism.  Simon’s most heartfelt plea was – to ease the lives of booksellers – for publishers to produce the best metadata (the collection of information about a book, including its availability) of which they are capable.  Surprisingly, it took a full hour for this ubiquitous buzz-word to announce its presence.

    Several areas of consensus emerged, including the collective conviction that good (and especially good niche) physical booksellers could and were thriving in the digital age, despite apocalyptic predictions to the contrary (Jon wryly commented on the industry’s fascination with scenarios for its own demise), that there were ways in which bookshops could build reading communities with imaginative marketing and communication, and that no good would come of simply wishing away or ignoring technological innovation.  The questions that followed included: why more bookshops didn’t include second-hand sections; whether publishers sufficiently involved themselves with bookshops (‘No’, in short, seemed to be the answer) and whether ‘bundling’ (collating and presenting titles together, in part or whole, electronically) was the way forward.  Some 120 people had levered themselves into the venue, and they created many animated sub-discussions long after the panel members had received their well-deserved round of applause.  Although no-one presumed to draw an accurate map of the future for book retail, there was the very strong sense that it would be more varied and interesting than might have been expected in the recent past.

    We’d like to thank everyone who attended and Byte the Book for this latest instalment in their thoughtful and necessary programme of educational and networking events.

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