A Moment of Change for Readers by Rory McNeill
This year, as with many industries, has torn up the carpet of publishing, forcing businesses not only to redecorate but to remodel entirely. The benefit for publishers is that they’ve weathered storms like this before – the financial crash in 2007 or the eBook revolution – and we’re living in the wake of those. Meanwhile, the ‘audioboom’ is still very much underway. What’s different this time? Readers.
People love to support the little guy. With the demise of the high-street sadly accelerated by COVID, consumers across businesses are always being encouraged to turn to small and local businesses to help keep them going. This is exactly why support for independent bookshops and independent publishers is at an all-time high. It feels that way at least.
Of course, this goes hand in hand with growing disenchantment with data-hoarding, tax-evading tech giants, the names of which I’m sure you don’t need reminding. Independent publishers are often small, hard-working teams with character, and they generally feel more fulfilling to buy from. But while publishers and booksellers find unity in their anti-Amazon sentiment – knowing full well that they can’t abandon sales channels like Amazon altogether – this same sentiment is growing among readers. They’re searching for non-Amazon bookshops as well, making this the perfect moment for the industry to capitalise and shift gears.
Jeff Bezos currently has 184.4 billion USD at the time of writing. Amazon-bashing tends to point this out, along with the notion that he simply doesn’t ‘need’ more money. Enter viable alternatives.
University students face huge reading lists with little acknowledgement to the cost. On my course, many of my peers and I turned to second-hand book sites like World of Books. Sure, the quality of the copies varies from one to another – I once found a note at the front of a copy of River Of Ink reading ‘Happy Birthday Charlie, I know you’ll enjoy this xx.’ But it does the trick. At university, you need to keep up with and absorb the reading. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you also enjoy it. But otherwise, you’re not too fussed what copy you get. As a student, World of Books was perfect, with free delivery and a massive catalogue.
We’re all well aware of online retailer Bookshop's entrance into the UK in November, which was widely branded ‘sad but necessary.’ Bookshop likes to see itself as heroic even, with the following quote on their site: “Bookshop hopes to play Rebel Alliance to Amazon’s Empire,” invoking one of the most famous hero/villain combos we know. The site has helped hundreds of independent bookshops and independent publishers deliver their books to readers and comes at a crucial pre-Christmas moment. The site reached over £500,000 raised for independent bookshops in early December. This proves that while this is a desperate moment for publishers, readers are receptive to it, too. The Bookseller reports that booksellers have been ‘bolstered by record sales’ since the second UK lockdown, so readers are supporting bookshops on the high-street as well.
The fact is, Amazon has always done eCommerce exceptionally well. Their innovation is why they’re always so many steps ahead. But their business doesn’t need to succeed at the total expense or monopoly of other businesses. So, for readers, sites like Bookshop represent an alternative route to market that is more ethical. Yes, Amazon deliveries will arrive the next day, but readers seem to be exercising patience over convenience in order to support the little guys online.
Now is absolutely the time to do so. Publishers are looking desperately for ways to deliver books more sustainably. Amazon squeezes publishers and authors of margins in exchange for a crucial sales channel. Many publishers, if they’re able to, are therefore selling direct from their own websites. They’re even joining forces. Legend Times, a group of independent publishers, launched an online bookshop in November. Could this be a trend we see going forward? Will initiatives like the Independent Alliance club together to launch bookshops?
With or without Bookshop, publishers will have to consider both print and digital. There are already multiple channels available delivering eBooks and some audiobooks as well – Net Galley (largely for bloggers and reviewers), Glassboxx and Libro.fm (US) to name a few. Many of these are still up-and-coming, still carving out their place in publishing.
Among the online publishing community, support for independent publishers is everywhere: bloggers, publications and bookstagrammers enjoy gathering around new initiatives that support small publishers. This year has brought around the launch of The Publishing Post, The Indie Insider, The Publishing Profile and more publishing-focused blogs or newsletters that exercise this support. Among the strong community of publishing hopefuls, these have been very well received. This energy will naturally simmer down through the influential spheres of bloggers to readers more and more.
If publishing has a problem, it is looking for the answer. But so are readers. Unlike the rise of eBooks, though, reader’s attitudes to buying books are changing in a direction that publishers want and expect, so this moment of change is thoroughly welcome.