A few weeks ago I presented at a Booksellers Association arranged event, The Independent Booksellers Forum on Creative Collaboration for Healthy High Streets. I had been invited to talk about what is going on in retailing , the Portas review and my thoughts on book retailing. I had fun with my usual rambles, and the audience of independent booksellers and publishers from across the UK, were generous enough to seem to enjoy it and ask a few questions.
The event was held at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh (a great venue and good cafe), which gave me a guide to the style of presentation. We wandered around issues of pricing, poor practice and functionality in mainstream book retailing, before looking at the rise of e-books and the changing consumer market. A diversion into Portas was followed by some thoughts on the role of independent booksellers and shops in making places and destinations. Local booksellers have to find reasons for people to visit and make it easier and better for consumers to shop. They can contribute mightily to the sense of local place and become a core part of the offer if done well.
Luckily I was joined in my session by people putting some thoughts about place into practice. Ros de la Hay of the Main Street Trading Company in St Boswells talked passionately about her business and Duncan Jones presented the Travellers Guide to Literary Scotland and showed how books and places can be brought together in interesting ways.
As an academic I am obviously interested in books (as a reader, teacher an author) and have an interested in all retail books, including old ones. This has made me interested in second hand book shops and (like markets) I can spend hours engrossed in them. Good bookshops of whatever form can be really interesting places.
I was therefore intrigued when a reader of this blog pointed to their own blog Planet Edinburgh and to their post of the 27 March on the Secret Life of Edinburgh’s Bookshops. In a fascinating ramble through a small selection of Edinburgh’s second hand and antiquarian bookshops, they point to a wonderful world for exploration. Other towns and cities and other bookshops are of course available.
While pondering this changing world of booksellers but the enduring role of books, and thus these various possible retail delights, I was taken by the article in today’s Guardian. This reports that Amazon, despite their extensive sales in the UK, pay almost no tax, as the payment part of the European operation is routed through Luxembourg. Being based there also means that they can levy the lowest possible rate of VAT on e-books for example and thus undercut the UK market. As regular readers know, I have wondered about why governments have funded Amazon in Scotland given their effects and now it seems that they may not be paying tax on their operations as well.
Amazon are a good business and have been hugely successful in meeting the needs of the changing consumer. We can decry it, but they do what they do well, and consumers clearly see the value (and I include myself). Whether we should fund them to do so, and whether we should allow them not to pay tax are different questions, but vitally important to the local booksellers that they are competing with. A fair playing field at least is needed here, so those good local booksellers can focus on what they can do well in meeting their consumers and their needs.