Working together the theme as BA members meet in Birmingham
Collaboration was the prevalent theme of the Monday morning sessions at the Booksellers Association (BA) conference, held for a second year at Conference Aston in Birmingham. It was promoted by BA president Nic Bottomley and md Meryl Halls, and the message was reinforced in an inspirational keynote address by business leader and author Margaret Heffernan.
Bottomley spoke of "encouraging each other to be the best booksellers we can possibly be" as one of three immediate BA aims identified by him as incoming president and Halls as newly promoted md, as well as by their colleagues. Heffernan, giving her address without notes but with commanding fluency, argued that relentless competition among retailers would destroy high street ecosystems. She noted an MIT experiment showing that the most creative teams were not those with the most brainpower but those with the most emotional intelligence, and with members who were most willing to help each other - observations that suggest why retail chains that parachute in a series of high-flying ceos, each of whom directs a revised business strategy, end up with less and less appealing shops.
In an aside about John Lewis that echoed Waterstones' recent fortunes, Heffernan noted that the retailer's successes had come when shop floor staff had been given licence to try out their own ideas. Booksellers and fellow retailers, she said, were "in this together to make the high street somewhere people want to come".
On intra-bookselling co-operation, the BA has built on its programme inviting publishers to spend time on the shopfloor with Bookshop Swap, acting as matchmaker to encourage booksellers to spend time in each other's shops. (Bottomley recalled how helpful to him Andrew Cant and Sue Steel of Simply Books had been when he set up Mr B's in Bath.) There is talk of a "university of bookselling" - perhaps not an examining body, but one that offers a bank of knowledge.
The second strand of the BA's initiatives is inclusivity. The association has joined the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, and has decided on the 15 bookshops in Britain and Ireland who will receive portions of the first tranche of a £50,000 grant designed to promote inclusivity initiatives. It has also published a report on creating an inclusive bookshop.
The third strand is green: the BA has set up a green bookselling taskforce, examining matters ranging from bags and packaging to lighting. Among the quick wins achieved already are FSC-compliant Book Tokens and the exclusion of balloons from the BA's POS packs.
Amazon came up, as it always does, but this time with the BA reporting progress in the PR fight with the internet giant. Amazon's €250m fine for receiving illegal state aid and the abolition of its most favoured nation clauses were two victories for the BA and other lobbyists, and Bottomley and Halls reported that there were sympathetic ears in government to high street retailers' arguments that rates were unduly harsh on them and unduly lenient on internet companies. There had been "a shift in awareness about Amazon", Bottomley said. The BA will give a further push to its rates petition to coincide with Bookshop Day and the Books Are My Bag promotion.
Other achievements and plans presented to delegates included an invoice-finding app from BATCH; membership of the retailTRUST, which offers wellbeing services; and the extension of the Children's Book of the Season promotion, in which 80 independent bookshops take part, to Children's Book of the Month.
The second keynote of the morning came from Benjamin Zephaniah. He recalled his making as a poet - as, with his twin sister, the only black child at St Matthias school, not far from the conference venue. Introducing the siblings at assembly, the head teacher had encouraged all the children to bring to school the next day their favourite golliwogs.
Photos from top: Nic Bottomley and Meryl Halls; Margaret Heffernan; Benjamin Zephaniah