Independent bookshops have faced multiple new threats from the digital economy, but they’ve proven more durable than expected and are fighting back with some innovative ideas.
- Sales of books and journals in the UK were worth £4.8 billion in 2016 (Publishers Association).
- Overall UK book sales (printed, audio, e-books) increased 2% in 2016 to more than 360 million books (Nielson)
- The volume of printed books sold in the UK crept up 0.9% in 2016 to reach 240.5 million, while the volume of e-books sold dipped 1.6% to 88.9 million books. (Nielson)
- There are 867 independent bookshops in the UK, down from 894 in 2016 and 1,535 in 2005 (Booksellers Association).
- UK independent bookshops sold 209 million books in 2016, giving them a 5.8% market share. Chain bookshops accounted for 20.7% and internet retailers 48.9% (Nielson)
For book lovers, few things are more satisfying than time spent leisurely exploring a bookstore. Combing book-laden aisles for a hidden gem that you can hold and leaf through has never been matched by the online experience.
Still, the number of independent sellers and chain bookstores in the UK has been in sharp decline. They’ve been unable to compete with the convenience and heavy discounting offered by Amazon and hammered by the rise of e-books, the economic downturn and rising overheads.
The number of independent bookshops in the UK has almost halved in the past 11 years. It now sits at just 867 stores, though the rate of closure has slowed considerably.
Reading itself has not lost its attraction, with 360 million books sold in the UK in 2016.
After years of rapid growth, e-book sales shrunk marginally in 2016, while consumption of printed books remained strong.
This adjustment in consumer habits has several causes. First, a shift in e-book pricing has made them less affordable. Second, genres such as children’s books, humour and cookery simply work better in print. And third, physical books remain culturally ingrained.
Bookshops are fighting back with innovative ways of getting people through the door. Alongside cafes and author signing events, bookshops are now providing a growing range of services such as book subscription packages, writing workshops and even singles nights for bookworms.
Two chain stores represent the heavyweight high street competition for independent booksellers: Waterstones, which has 280 UK stores, and WH Smith, which has nine dedicated bookstores, called The Bookshop, alongside the chain’s more familiar 612 high street stores.
It remains a challenging time for independent booksellers. Yet there are plenty of success stories for those that combine their love of books with the right community dynamics and business acumen.
For those looking to join the thinning ranks of booksellers, there are no franchises in the UK, and independent shops will either be sold freehold or leasehold. Both come with advantages and disadvantages.
Freehold means no rent reviews, making changes to the property are much easier (no approval needed from a landlord), and you will benefit from any rise in the value of your property. However, this will push up the cost of buying the bookshop considerably, while repairs and updates can seriously inflate monthly outgoings.
A leasehold gives you greater control over your monthly outgoings and reduces your upfront costs. And you have more freedom if you want to relocate your business, particularly on a short lease.
However, leasing can be costly in the long run, with rent reviews and missing out on rising freehold property values.
Major benefits of the industry
- Very much a rewarding community business with a social environment
- Talking about books every day with customers is immensely rewarding for book lovers
- The satisfaction of finding the right book – whether they know it or not – for a customer
- Meeting authors/illustrators at signing events
- Access to preliminary book proofs ahead of publication
Challenges facing the industry
Like many sectors, the Brexit vote raises uncertainties for retailers as EU laws must be reviewed and adapted for domestic law. This includes the future status of EU staff currently employed in UK bookshops.
Already, currency fluctuations following the EU referendum have raised the cost of importing foreign titles, as well as non-book supplies such as cards and toys. However, the plummeting pound has been a boon for those who also have an online bookstore and sell titles overseas.
Competition from online retailers, e-books and other entertainment forms is an ongoing concern. (We have some specific tips for competing with online stores.)
Independent bookshops often cannot compete on price and choice with online vendors. But they can offer unique selling points such as being a cultural destination for author signing events or readings, as well as a place where customers can get expertise advice.
Bookindy caters for book lovers caught in the convenience trap of online shopping, but who don’t want to see high street store disappear.
Other challenges include rising business rates and rents, and a big drop in the number of people visiting high streets.
Buying a niche bookshop with an established customer base, or one that caters successfully to the interests of the local community, is a good way to inherit durable levels of footfall.
When buying a bookshop, bear in mind that since April 2017, business rate revaluations have been set by property value rather than the success or profitability of a business.
There are several ways in which bookshops can increase revenue alongside their core services. But additional services should fit with the brand and target market of your bookshop.
As well as providing secondary revenue streams, diversification can attract new customers into the store who might subsequently buy books too. Examples that have proven successful for independent booksellers include:
- A café or providing light refreshments
- Writing supplies and stationery
- An in store e-bookstore
- A place for book clubs to hold their meetings
- Author/illustrator events
- In-house printing press for self-published authors
- Film screenings
- Performance spaces
- Writing workshops
- Book subscription packages
- Singles events
What it takes to be a successful bookshop proprietor
Given the small margins between success and failure for independents, a love of books should be backed up by retail skills and business acumen.
You also need to decide what kind of bookseller you want to be, as this will dictate many aspects of your business, from budgets to business and marketing strategies.
A targeted marketing plan will identify the most effective means of spreading the word about your bookshop.
Understanding your local market and community needs is crucial to the success of many independent bookshops.
If online competitors are such a big threat to your business, why not join them and supplement your high street business with an online portal? Develop a website for your bookstore that is easy and quick to navigate and order books from.
And make sure you set up, optimise and update over time a free Google listing so would-be customers can find you when they search for nearby bookshops on Google Maps.
- Knowledge of, and passion for, books
- Great customer service skills (whether it’s advice on what to read or ordering upcoming books for collection)
- Awareness of popular trends and what your target market is into
- Patient, rigorous approach to hiring staff and building relationships with suppliers
- Willingness to deploy products and services beyond bookselling to attract customers into the store and away from online booksellers
Buying an existing bookshop
Location can be important, so make sure you assess location and footfall. However, although being on a busy high street is ideal, a well-marketed store serving a niche interest (like this one, whose owner we interviewed) will see loyal customers patronise less convenient and – crucially, for you – cheaper locations.
Insist on a complete inventory and consider putting in a clause to protect you from buying inventory that could be sold before you take possession.
Research all your options for business support services (payments systems etc). Don’t assume the previous owners were astute business people who must have researched the best deals for the business.
When negotiating with suppliers, the ideal is finding ones that ship quickly, allow smaller orders and offer delayed billing.
Be aware that some sellers believe that they should be compensated for their ‘sweat equity’ when they set an asking price for the business. Carry out a thorough business valuation to assess the store’s strengths and projected finances before agreeing a final price.