Tagholm's take - the week in books at 7 July 2017

Roger Tagholm
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 07 July 2017

Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, on James Daunt Down Under, the Matthew Evans memorial, and other news from the book trade


Waterstones md James Daunt has been Down Under to talk about how bricks and mortar booksellers can Rise Above. He was a keynote speaker at the Australian Booksellers Association's annual conference in Melbourne, where he told delegates that rather than fearing Amazon, booksellers should realise that there was plenty that they could do that Amazon could not. For Daunt, the secret lies in shop-floor booksellers "giving people a sense of excitement about books [and] making books relevant… If the bookshops are good enough, if the relationship with your customers is truly there, if your booksellers are enjoying themselves and you've trained them and you've respected them and you've allowed them to develop their skills - then our customers truly will remain loyal to us".

Daunt likened the ending of Waterstones' paid-for publisher promotions to "coming off heroin" (does this make publishers "dealers"? Discuss), and noted that returns were greatly reduced as a result. Stock had come down by 20%, he said, but the number of titles carried had increased by 20%. Furthermore, stock turn went from two to five, ending the days when it was below five and "we had a lot of books sitting there getting dusty and getting unattractive". Finally, "self-reliant and self-motivated staff brought energy into the shops. If you're literally running around and don't stop, customers feel that energy".

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Discussion of a generic campaign for books followed the Bookseller's marketing and publicity conference, with calls for publishers to work together. Marcus Leaver of Quarto said he would be happy to donate funds should such a campaign emerge. In the US, some left-leaning publishers are joining forces in a loose "resistance" federation, part of the anti-Trump movement that has galvanised booksellers too. Verso Books, Haymarket Books and Seven Stories Press, along with socialist quarterly magazine Jacobin, are collaborating on marketing and web development. It's not quite a generic campaign for left-leaning books, but they are hoping to appeal to a newly radicalised segment of the US book market.

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Politics makes its presence felt everywhere right now. At the American Library Association conference in Chicago, the speech by the city's Mayor Rahm Emanuel was going down well. "I want to stand up in front of you and say thank you for what you do every day," he told librarians, acknowledging the good work they do despite a government that wants to "eliminate virtually all library funding".

Then outgoing ALA President Julie Todaro seized her moment. Addressing the mayor, she said that the previous morning she had visited the Chicago Tribune with a school librarian. "She had great data about the school library metrics and we hope to see a future that shows increased backing for school libraries…" That's when the whooping and applause began. She continued: "Chicago public libraries are fabulous and your partnerships are fabulous… there are some extraordinary public school librarians out there and we'd like to see more." Cue rapturous applause and shouts of support. It's a great moment of book industry theatre, with others pointing out online that it was Mayor Rahm who presided over cuts to Chicago's libraries in 2012, leading to protests outside City Hall.

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Congratulations to Sharjah, the third largest of the United Arab Emirates, which has been named UNESCO World Book Capital for 2019. It is the first Gulf city to receive the title, and the honour acknowledges Sharjah's long-standing commitment to books and culture, its belief in books and reading as essential for the understanding of other countries and peoples, and its advocacy of the role of books in healing division. It is also a personal triumph for the emirate's ruler, His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, member of the UAE's Supreme Council, who has worked tirelessly to build a book industry in the country since he took office in 1971.

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Some lovely endings this week too. After Curtis Brown Chairman Jonathan Lloyd's warm words about the agent Ed Victor, who died last month, how fitting that the celebrated agent's business affairs should now move to Curtis Brown. And on Wednesday this week, tributes were paid to former Faber chairman Matthew Evans, who died last year, at a celebration of his life at the Royal Court theatre in Chelsea. The current Faber chief executive Stephen Page thanked Evans "on behalf of all Faber staff, past and present, for building a thrilling publishing house. It was a life's work - he was a truly great publisher who was loved around the world".

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