Independent bookshops and the BA: “Rate relief for businesses with a cultural and educational value would be welcome”

The Booksellers Association has moved on, and with the publication of stats confirming a fall in the number of independent members of 26% (compared to a total membership fall of 20%) has publicly acknowledged that it represents a sector in crisis.

nb that’s sector, not industry.  There are elements of the book trade that continue to do very nicely, thank you.  That American corporation that released all those new eReaders and tablets last week, for instance.  There may even be independent shop owners who greet each new day with a song, though I’m struggling to imagine where they may be.

But those in the trade – in bookselling, publishing, the BA – who may have wished (and wished) we were “weathering a storm” now all recognise that the rules have changed, as customers’ bookbuying choice settles down to either Amazon (for printed books) or, alternatively, Amazon (for eBooks).  (Though there is much activity over at Kobo/Facebook, and indeed NetFlix/Spotify, not to mention Google Books too.)

Given that the market for printed books, and the opportunities for specialist bookshops, are shrinking, I believe the BA should reconstitute itself as a smaller organisation that represents the true specialists.  These don’t just have to be independent bookshops, in the classic definition; branches of Waterstone’s, second-hand or online sellers could all be eligible.  There are things that the BA would have to stop doing, but I believe it would benefit from no longer trying to square the expectations of supermarkets with those of its independent membership.  (And Amazon, of course, is not a member.)

I don’t think that rates relief for bookshops is a bad idea – it’s routinely offered in countries from France to Finland.  We live in a country where some cultural institutions receive massive state asisstance (opera houses, galleries) and others receive none.  If the government, and everybody else with an interest, believes that books are just another product that should live or die by the market, then so be it – but we would all be much poorer as a result.

The Twitterati were revelling in this timeline last week, which purports to show the extinction of the physical book trade betwen now and 2025.  It’s US-centric, so we should expect to hold out in the UK until – well, 2026 at least.