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Have independent bookshops worked out how to survive in the age of Amazon?

Philip Pullman's new book is expected to be a literary sensation. So why aren't small bookshops stocking it? 

In his 1936 essay, "Bookshop Memories", George Orwell gave a warts-and-all account of the bookselling trade. “Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital,” he wrote. “Any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop."

He continued:

“Also it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarised beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.”

Orwell was wrong. In the last ten years, the “combines” of Amazon and Waterstones have contributed to the demise of 557 independent bookstores, or nearly half of shops overall. It’s a state of affairs that Philip Pullman, whose new instalment in the His Dark Materials series comes out this autumn, is keen to address.

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust - Part One has already attracted literary hype ahead of its release in October. So you would expect it to be a shot in the arm for independent booksellers – except that the vast majority won’t be stocking it.

The recommended retail price for the hardback edition of La Belle Sauvage is £20. Both Amazon and Waterstones have been taking pre-orders for months at half that price. It’s a discount which smaller stores are simply not privy to, because they cannot follow the chains in buying in bulk from wholesalers and publishers. This has been the case since the scrapping of the Net Book Agreement, which existed from 1900 to 1997 and ensured that all books had to be sold at roughly the same price.

Now, Pullman is leading calls to bring it back.

“There is an insane, inhumane and perverted belief that the market knows best, and that it is something natural, like gravity, which we can do nothing to alter,” he told The Times. “But of course we can alter the way the market works. It’s a human construction.”

His comments have reignited the debate about independent booksellers, and how they should be valued. “This issue of the Net Book Agreement and discounts is, I would say, the single biggest thing on most people's minds,” says Susie Nicklin, owner of Dulwich Books, an independent book shop in South London. “It's creating a two-tier bookselling industry in which it's not even worth independent booksellers stocking most of the best sellers.

“We're never going to be able to compete on price, certainly with the hardbacks. It would be pointless for me and my colleagues to offer all the new, brilliant, great hardback books at 50 per cent discount. First of all, we don't get that kind of discount from the publisher: it's the big bulk orders that attract big discounts. Secondly, it would just be a race to the bottom.”

Similar arrangements to the Net Book Agreement still exist in other European countries. In Britain, though, the Restrictive Practices Court deemed it illegal in 1997 for being “contrary to the public interest”. In a decade obsessed with free market competition, where the internet was still a niche pastime, the hope was that bookselling would become an economically vibrant trade. 

Two decades later, the business is largely monopolistic. The outlawing of the NBA coincided with the rise of Amazon, and as the American retailer bought more and more in bulk, discounts became more and more pronounced. Smaller independent stores were unable to keep up. 

It’s an experience familiar to Ron Johns, who owns and runs four south coast independent stores under the banner of Mabecron Books. “I started bookselling in 1969, opened my first bookshop in 1974, and now I have four bookshops,” he tells me over the phone from his warehouse. “I had to close an academic bookshop two years ago, which was a big business for us. So I've seen both sides of the story.”

For the booksellers who have succeeded in the Amazon age, they have had to adapt their business model. For Johns, that required embracing the local tourist culture around his shops in St Ives, Falmouth, Dartmouth and Padstow. The shops compete on stock selection, knowledgeable staff and the ambient environment in the shops. 

“They’re destination towns”, he says. “Which has worked out pretty well really, because since the NBA went and the rise of Amazon, the bricks and mortar bookshops in the large cities have increasingly been driven out. They cannot afford those rents with their reduction in turnover."

Indies’ efforts in becoming part of the community, as well as giving personalised customer service, has helped to provide some promising signs of growth, which Johns sees as part of a wider resurgence of physical media.

"There's a lot of dead Kindles in cupboards now," he says. "Our book sales over the last two years have grown.” This backlash against e-books is partly because readers care about where they source their books, he suggests: “Responsible people are saying, 'I want to know where I'm buying my books from'."

That’s been the case across the entire publishing industry. From 2015 to 2016, physical sales have increased by eight per cent to a total of £3bn – the highest figure since 2012. Johns, though, is still struggling to match the turnover he enjoyed before the recession. “We're getting near it now, but it's taken nine years."

Retail chains are also benefiting. In recent years, Waterstones has pursued a mock-independent model, by giving power back to their shop managers to tailor their stock to their customers. The business is now back in profit. It has even opened plain-clothes shops which don’t bear the Waterstone’s logo. 

Johns finds this covert approach “strange”.

“It means they're not proud of their brand,” he says. “How can you have a major UK company and not be proud of your brand? I can't see Marks and Spencers doing that.”

Like Johns, Susie Nicklin of Dulwich Books prioritises the personal touch in order to grow her business. Her shop, which was shortlisted for the British Book Awards 2017 Independent Bookshop of the Year, has an impressive 12,000 followers on Twitter, and is a firm – and proud – part of the community.

“We compete on things like service,” says Nicklin, the former director of English PEN and former director of literature for the British Council. “But we can only compete on service with customers who come and find us. And the vast majority of customers these days don't even know what an independent bookshop is, because there are fewer and fewer of them around."

Pride seems to define the profession. Nicklin is adamant that she doesn’t want pity as an indie. “I'm not a charity," she says. "I don't expect my customers to have to come into my shop saying, 'Oh, let's help poor Susie out because she's an independent bookseller'. I'm proud of what I do. I'm as proud as Selfridges or Liberty or the BMW showroom down the road. I think we do a great job and I don't want people to feel somehow that they're helping me out by doing this.”

Nicklin is positive about the trade at the moment. “There's a lot of good books around at the moment." Nevertheless, she believes the independent booksellers who have survived tend to be the ones who are good at their jobs in the first place. "They have loyal customer bases and they have very good relationships with the publishers.”

When it comes to the technological changes ripping through the publishing industry, Nicklin points out that despite inflation, book prices have hardly risen in 20 years. "I've got hardbacks here that were published 20 years ago that are the same price as the hardbacks now," she says. 

When discussing the "huge publishing event" of La Belle Sauvage, Nicklin uses the example of new iPhones. No stockist would dream of discounting them on release, she argues, despite the high cost.

“There's no need to sell it at 50 per cent off,” she says. “So, in a way, the question is not for me, but for the other retailers, which is, 'Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to halve your revenue from this book?'"

She does not believe it is possible to simply turn back time and bring the Net Book Agreement back. Nevertheless, she feels "very strongly" that those discounting books should explain why they are doing it. "We know they can sell the books full price. We absolutely know that. People would, and people do in other countries, buy the books at full price.” 

Ron Johns of Mabecron Books agrees that simply resurrecting the NBA won't do. “We shouldn't call it the NBA anymore," he says. “I also think we shouldn't call it fixed price." He notes that books are alone among products in having the price printed on them. "Some publishers will put an inflated price on the cover knowing it's going to be cut price. It's so shallow and all wrong.​"

He suggests instead a scheme where a book must be sold at the cover price for the first six months, after which it can be discounted. "That would be totally fair on everybody. Then you're not getting the craziness over a book like the Pullman book."

La Belle Sauvage seems to be emblematic of indies’ fight for market share. Both the booksellers I interviewed suspect Amazon, which has opened eight physical bookshops in select American territories, of being primarily motivated by its aim of building its customer base. Indeed, Amazon began as an online bookseller before diversifying and becoming the internet giant it is today. 

The reasons for independent booksellers to oppose discounting may be obvious. But writers too can share their antipathy. 

Some authors' contracts state they receive a share of the sales, which means that they lose out from heavily discounted books. The Society of Authors even warns that being associated with too many discounted books can damage an author's professional brand. 

Nicklin describes the market as an “incredibly fragile ecosystem”. 

“It’s a bit like a coral reef,” she explains, referring to author royalties. “It's not like a manufacturing industry in which you manufacture a product and then your bit's done." She fears that falling income will discourage writers from trying to pursue their careers. 

Pullman, too, is proud of the products he produces. “I'll just say that writers have to be very careful not to let their books be sold for prices that are too low,” he wrote to a fan in 2012 when asked why his books didn’t appear on Kindle.

“Everyone likes low prices, but this is how we make our living. Just suppose you were in business making some piece of machinery that was important and useful, and you charged a price for it that let you earn enough to live on.

“Then along came a huge great retail company and said:‘We don't think people ought to have to pay all that much for your machinery. We think they ought to pay much less! So we're going to sell your machinery for a tenth of the price, and you'll have to put up with it.’ Does that sound fair to you?”

Indeed, he is using the literary sensation of La Belle Sauvage to speak on small booksellers' behalf. “It’s not exaggerating to say that [independent booksellers] are the lantern bearers of civilisation," he wrote recently. The lights are staying on in the bookshops - for now. 



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David had taken the same tablets for years. Why the sudden side effects?

Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot.

David had been getting bouts of faintness and dizziness for the past week. He said it was exactly like the turns he used to get before he’d had his pacemaker inserted. A malfunctioning pacemaker didn’t sound too good, so I told him I’d pop in at lunchtime.

Everything was in good order. He was recovering from a nasty cough, though, so I wondered aloud if, at the age of 82, he might just be feeling weak from having fought that off. I suggested he let me know if things didn’t settle.

I imagined he would give it a week or two, but the following day there was another visit request. Apparently he’d had a further turn that morning. The carer hadn’t liked the look of him so she’d rung the surgery.

Once again, he was back to normal by the time I got there. I quizzed him further. The symptoms came on when he got up from the sofa, or if bending down for something, suggesting his blood pressure might be falling with the change in posture. I checked the medication listed in his notes: eight different drugs, at least two of which could cause that problem. But David had been taking the same tablets for years; why would he suddenly develop side effects now?

I thought I’d better establish if his blood pressure was dropping. I got him to stand, and measured it repeatedly over a period of several minutes. Not a hint of a fall. And nor did he now feel in the slightest bit unwell. I was stumped. David’s wife had been watching proceedings from her armchair. “Mind you,” she said, “it only happens mid-morning.”

The specific timing made me pause. I asked to see his tablets. David passed me a carrier bag of boxes. I went through them methodically, cross-referencing each one to his notes.

“Well, there’s your trouble,” I said, holding out a couple of the packets. One was emblazoned with the name “Diffundox”, the other “Prosurin”. “They’re actually the same thing.”

Every medication has two names, a brand name and a generic one – both Diffundox and Prosurin are brand names of a medication known generically as tamsulosin, which improves weak urinary flow in men with enlarged prostates. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe generically in almost all circumstances – if I put “tamsulosin” on a prescription, the pharmacist can supply the best value generic available at that time, but if I specify a brand name they’re obliged to dispense that particular one irrespective of cost.

Generic prescribing is good for the NHS drug budget, but it can be horribly confusing for patients. Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot. And while the box always has the generic name on it somewhere, it’s much less prominent than the brand name. With so many patients on multiple medications, all of which are subject to chopping and changing between generics, it’s no wonder mix-ups occur. Couple that with doctors forever stopping and starting drugs and adjusting doses, and you start to get some inkling of quite how much potential there is for error.

I said to David that, at some point the previous week, two different brands of tamsulosin must have found their way into his bag. They looked for all the world like different medications to him, with the result that he was inadvertently taking a double dose every morning. The postural drops in his blood pressure were making him distinctly unwell, but were wearing off after a few hours.

Even though I tried to explain things clearly, David looked baffled that I, an apparently sane and rational being, seemed to be suggesting that two self-evidently different tablets were somehow the same. The arcane world of drug pricing and generic substitution was clearly not something he had much interest in exploring. So, I pocketed one of the aberrant packets of pills, returned the rest, and told him he would feel much better the next day. I’m glad to say he did. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game