Tagholm's Take - the news in books at 8 December 2017

Roger Tagholm
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 08 December 2017

Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, on Amazon Australia, Waterstones' openings, and other book industry news


All credit to Melbourne-based audiobook retailer Bolinda for bringing its cleaner to the Bookseller's FutureBook conference last week. And not just its cleaner, but also its "hiker", "dancer" and doer of any activity that can be accomplished while listening to audiobooks - which was the point the company was making. It hired London-based actress Sarine Sofair to perform these tasks in front of a Bolinda backdrop in the coffee area of the conference, where founder and co-ceo Rebecca Herrman met delegates, some of whom may have been discovering her company for the first time.

Many took pictures, but one wonders how many realised they had seen Sofair before - er, half-naked in Game of Thrones seasons 4 and 5, in which she played Lhara, a prostitute living in Braavos, and splashed about topless in the Roman-style baths with the pirate-lord Salladhan Saan. (Sorry: that Google thing is so useful.) To top off a very successful visit, Herrmann was named FutureBook Leader of the Year, following Pan Macmillan's Sara Lloyd last year and Penguin Random House's Hannah Telfer in 2015.

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Still with Australia: Amazon has now officially launched in the land where England's cricketers are having such a tough time. This has prompted the familiar debate over jobs created over potential jobs lost (and about batting orders too). Amazon promises to "create thousands of new jobs and invest millions of dollars" in the country. Mark Rubbo, md of indie bookseller Readings in Melbourne, is pessimistic. "There's a real risk that Amazon Australia could decimate local businesses - and with them, part-time casual jobs for students and parents of young children," he warns.

He may be heartened by an overview of the US experience by the Harvard Business School (HBS). Its "Working Knowledge" site notes that while the number of US indies fell by 43% between 1995 and 2000, between 2009 and 2015 indies staged a comeback, with numbers rising 35% from 1,651 stores to 2,227. The figures come from the American Booksellers Association.

Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor in HBS' organisational behaviour unit, wondered how this revival had happened, and has released the preliminary findings of his five-year research into the phenomenon. He summarises it with three c's: community, curation and convening. Raffaelli says that indies were pioneers in championing localism; they began to offer a more tailored stock range (leaving the chains to battle it out with online players on frontlist); and they worked hard to increase the number of events/debates/storytimes/children's parties/signings etc they held, promoting themselves as intellectual centres at the heart of communities. In other words: perhaps - just perhaps - there is room for both indies and Amazon.

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Meanwhile, on these shores, Waterstones' announcement of five new stores before Christmas was a welcome early present for publishers, even if two of the stores - St Neots in Cambridgeshire and Epsom in Surrey - are in towns where the chain had closed previous branches. The three other stores - the Deal Bookshop in Kent, the Weybridge Bookshop in Surrey, and the Blackheath Bookshop in south east London - are what might be called "Indiestones" or "Waterdependents": independents in look and feel, but very much part of the mothership.

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This good news is reflected across the Atlantic. While Barnes & Noble's figures for the second quarter to 28 October were poor in non-book categories, ceo Demos Pameros said that book sales had held their own and that like-for-like store sales had continued to improve into November. He told analysts that the company's plan was to open smaller stores that would concentrate on books, and that in fiscal 2019 it hoped to achieve a net opening of stores.

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In China, they seem to be trying something the UK experimented with in the Eighties and Nineties: publisher-owned bookstores (anyone remember Penguin Bookshops?). State-owned publisher Citic Press Group has opened nearly 70 shops in airports across the country, while Chinese publisher Thinkingdom Media Group has acquired Singapore-based bookstore Page One.

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Congratulations to Simon & Schuster president and ceo Carolyn Reidy, named Publishers Weekly Person of the Year. PW noted that Reidy had "steered the company through the Great Recession, publishing's digital disruption, and a slow growth sales environment to keep it a commercial and critical success".

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A wonderful story about newly declassified papers from MI5 concerns the security service's monitoring of the novelist Kingsley Amis, after an intercepted letter had described him as a “very promising" member of the Communist Party. Amis' commanding officer, Col John Baskervyle-Glegg (stop, stop - they must be making this up), sent a memo stating that the young officer did not have "a particularly inspiring personality". He also described Amis as a "deliberate contrarian" - a remark that may prompt the thought among older members of the publishing industry: "They should have known him in his later years..."

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