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Don’t judge a bookshop by its cover

Independent bookstores are often no more ethical than the big chains

When the government ordered all “non-essential” retail outlets to close in response to the pandemic, it came as a shock to some that Britain, unlike other more enlightened parts of Europe, did not consider bookshops essential.

“They are places of character and eccentricity, which it would be a terrible shame to lose,” Emma Chapman wrote in the Guardian when it looked like Amazon was about to wipe them all off the map in 2014. That sentiment lives on, as the new online “shop front” for local indies,, provides readers with a way to support their local bookstore even when buying online.

I too prefer to the ambience of some cosy independent bookstores to the often-soulless experience of browsing in big chains. Too often, however, merchants and middlemen profit from other people’s creative work, and either downplay or ignore the interests of the writers, artists and publishers who actually create the literature — often with little or no support from “independent” bookstores.

As somebody who represents independent authors, artists and publishers, it pains me to say that when the high street reopens this week, the loss of some independent bookshops won’t be mourned. Our beloved bookshops are just the decorative windows for a literary industry that is so rotten it is driving many innovative writers, artists and publishers away from the inefficient traditional book trade.

Lev Parker is the editor and chairman of the surrealist press Morbid Books, whose last novel, That Lonesome Valley by Melissa Lee-Houghton, was nominated for the Republic of Consciousness Prize—awarded to the best independently published works of fiction in the UK. In 2019 the bookshop in Norwich associated with the RoC prize called the publisher’s distributor, Central Books, to acquire That Lonesome Valley, and nobody answered the phone. When the bookshop tried the alternative, Gardners wholesalers, they were told delivery would take up to six weeks. So the publisher and author suffered the embarrassment of their book not being present at the ceremony. According to Morbid Books, nobody at Central Books or Gardners ever apologised.

When you make the “ethical” choice of supporting a local bookshop the retailer still takes half the cover price

Parker said: “We’ve severed our contract with that distributor. Our books are produced out of passion and dedication, so it’s infuriating to have to hand them over to middlemen who clearly don’t care about them.”

Having been spoon fed a steady diet of small-business propaganda about how ethical their local independent bookstores are—especially the twee little ones that serve organic coffee and gluten-free cakes—readers might be surprised to discover that when they make the “ethical” choice of supporting a local bookshop instead of buying from Amazon, the retailer still takes half the cover price.

A £20 edition sold in Blackwell’s, for instance, will net the publisher around £7—but only if the copy actually sells. Because distributors send out stock on “sale or return,” the novels that took years to write and edit, and thousands of pounds to print, haven’t actually been paid for by the store. And it’s quite common that books supplied on “sale or return” are neither sold nor returned, especially to the presses that can least afford to lose them. Even if they are returned, unpaid for, standards in the book trade have degenerated to such an extent that distributors such as Turnaround no longer require them to be in a re-sellable condition. For many independent publishers, having their titles on display in bricks-and-mortar stores is a form of luxury advertising they are increasingly unable to afford.

Kirsty Allison, founder of Cold Lips press doesn’t employ sales agents or a distributor. Like many independent publishers—even those who have distributors—the only way to generate sales is for the writer and publisher to visit each independent bookstore personally. They take copies on “consignment,” and then the writer/publisher never hears from them again. 

The boldest publishers are creating communities of loyal readers who come to them direct

“It’s hard to keep track of where I’ve left them,” Allison says. “I am a creator, not a subscription manager, so there are numerous outlets where I haven’t collected any money from, and likely never will.”

If independent retailers really wanted to support a diverse literary culture, they would do the smaller presses a favour by taking their books from their distributor when they have one—and thus saving them the mountain of admin—or actually paying for their stock in advance. 

Curious to know how many of the other independents would be willing to buy their stock up front if it meant keeping indie presses alive, I sent out a survey to over 100 independent bookstores in Europe. Those that said yes to buying wholesale stock on “hard sale”—i.e. actually paying for it—you can count on two hands.

Perhaps fulfilment by Amazon is the alternative for small presses who are tired of lining the pockets of middlemen. Some self-published authors and small presses do well from the site, but Jeff Bezos’s online giant is becoming increasingly censorious, blocking the sale of titles deemed politically incorrect. It would be folly for authors who value freedom of expression to become dependent on the big American conglomerate or others like it.

Infinity Land Press publish literary titles in limited print runs of around three hundred. Founders Karolina Urbaniak and Martin Bladh proudly claim that they are “inoculated from the book trade.” And say their titles “often touch upon subjects that are too extreme for the established book market to muster.” Their books are promoted to subscribers via mailout and social media. With rare exceptions, they don’t appear in bookstores, and are sold direct to readers through their website.

As the book trade eats itself, it’s understandable why the boldest publishers are creating communities of loyal readers who come to them direct. It means more to readers when they come from the writers and editors themselves and often they are willing to pay more.

Ultimately, many of these independent publishers’ most dedicated readers first discovered them on display in shops and galleries. So there is a benefit from having them in physical stores. But at what cost? From the reader’s point of view, when bookstores finally reopen, many of today’s most innovative titles will be missing from the shelves. It is this fact, not the absence of the stores themselves, that is the greatest disappointment.

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