Independent bookshops have had their fair share of challenges for many years, from competing for the attention of book readers from radio and television to the competition posed by the emergence of chain bookstores that offer cheaper prices, through to the assault from online retailers and e-book devices. In the last decade Amazon and Waterstones have contributed to the demise of nearly half of the UK’s independent bookstores.
But the fightback is on. Indie bookshops, together with artisan bakeries, local coffee shops and micro-breweries are success stories in the best tradition of David v Goliath. They have had to buckle down and work harder to survive, and they are thriving. For me, local bookshops are essential to a healthy culture where where we discover new writers. They’re also anchors for our high streets and communities. In its best moments, they are as much a cabinet of curiosities as a place of business.
The indie bookshops are run by indefatigable entrepreneurs who responded to the challenges of lockdowns, moving to web, phone and e-mail orders during months of closure and dispatching books to loyal customers, many of them personally delivered on foot and bike. Click-and-collect and Bookshop.org added new sales channels. Events moved online, including book clubs on Facebook and author events on Zoom.
Indie bookshops are used to existential crises. They got a head start in learning to compete with Amazon, which challenged booksellers before taking on the rest of the high street. Amazon’s share of the book market has leapt from 37% to 52% over the past four years. How can indie bookstores survive under the shadow of such rapacious growth, while at the same time everyone is getting more comfortable shopping online? Karl Marx’s adage – all that is solid is melting into air – has never seemed more apposite.
It’s down to the economics. Say the recommended retail price for a new hardback edition is £20. Both Amazon and Waterstones have been taking pre-orders for months at half that price. It’s a discount which smaller stores are simply not privy to, because they cannot buy in bulk from wholesalers and publishers. This has been the case since the scrapping of the Net Book Agreement in 1997, which ensured that a new book had to be sold at roughly the same price.
The power of Amazon is sustained and augmented by the peculiar dysfunctions of C21st life: a consumer culture and app-mediated social life and a de facto national economic policy that deems cheap consumer goods the highest priority. One legitimate criticism of Amazon is obvious – it is too big. Its ability to leverage power over overlapping markets has metastasized into undemocratic power in culture and society. But we cooperate with Amazon because it fulfils our consumer desires with unparalleled convenience.
But now the indie bookshops have a tech partner. Bookshop.org is an online bookshop with a mission to financially support them. They aim to redirect readers from Amazon to its own online shop, where customers can either buy books directly or through virtual storefronts set up by individual bookshops. Bookshop.org provides a more personalised alternative to Amazon and gives stores a generous cut of each sale – 30% – and shares 10% of profits equally among member stores. It’s the ‘Rebel Alliance’ to Amazon’s ‘Empire’.
As more and more people buy their books online, Bookshop.org is an easy, convenient way for customers to get books and support bookshops at the same time. They also support anyone who advocates for books through an affiliate programme which pays a 10% commission on every sale and gives a matching 10% to the bookshops. If you are an author, or, have a bookclub that wants to recommend books, or even just a book lover with an Instagram feed, you can sign up to be an affiliate, start your own shop, and be rewarded for your advocacy.
Let’s look at the parable of David v Goliath when it comes to challenging Amazon’s monopoly. David’s victory over Goliath, in 1 Samuel Chapter 17 of the Old Testament is a story of how a shepherd boy defeated a fully armed giant warrior. David and Goliath confront each other, Goliath with his armour and shield, David with his staff and sling. David hurls a stone from his sling with all his might, and hits Goliath in the centre of his forehead. Goliath falls on his face to the ground, and David cuts off his head.
Entrepreneurs perpetually play the role of David against their Goliath corporate competitors, and, just like their biblical counterpart, small businesses can defeat their large competitors by outmanoeuvring and out-imagining them. Entrepreneurs are perfectly positioned to operate as insurgents, generally more alert and agile. The lesson is that when underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win. So how can the entrepreneurial Indie bookshop David’s succeed against their Amazon Goliath adversary?
1. Self-belief Before confronting Goliath, David had faith that Goliath could be defeated. Faith is simply the ability to act despite tremendous doubt.As an entrepreneur, you must never see your competitors as infallible. You must see a possibility to outperform them.If you execute and implement your competitive strategy with this mind-set, success will be yours.
The resurgence in local bookshops has come about by redefining their product’s value and meaning, positioning themselves as beacons in the communities where people who care about books meet and socialise. Whilst maybe not expecting to win, they have faith in themselves and cultivated a close relationship between the craftsmen and women of authors, and customers, who may see themselves as guardians of a great tradition rather than mere consumers. Similarly, the entrepreneurs who run the shop are custodians and advocates of the art and value of books.
Bookshops provide a sense of community and serendipity that cannot be replicated online. Shoppers in who come in for J K Rowling or John Grisham’s latest novel might go out with Seashaken Houses: A lighthouse history from Eddystone to Fastnet by Tom Nancollas (a great book, by the way). The indie bookshops have curated an offering that overcomes the faceless behemoth of Amazon; they should expect to win the hearts, minds and wallets of book lovers.
2. Focus David not only had faith that Goliath could be defeated, he also had self-belief that he was the one to do it. As an entrepreneur, you must have faith that your competitor can be defeated, and believe your business can do it.
The local bookshops have curated touchpoints for their audience, creating the conditions to attract the segment of customers who truly love the tactile experience of browsing a book in an environment, where people do not just buy something because it provides the most efficient solution to a problem. They buy it because it provides a more intrinsic, aesthetic satisfaction.
A book makes you feel good about yourself. This suggests a paradox: the more that disruptive innovations like the internet boost the overall productivity of the economy, the more room there will be for industries that focus on quality rather than quantity and heritage rather than novelty. Sometimes the best way forward is backwards. The focus on creating the right book shop experience has paid off.
3. Leverage Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth, said Archimedes.Leverage is simply the ability to do more with less, and ask yourself: how can I position my business to compete favourably with fewer resources?
David acknowledged that Goliath was taller and stronger, so he asked the question; How can I defeat Goliath without engaging him in a hand-to-hand combat? That answer came in the form of leverage. That leverage was his sling. In business, leverage can be in the form of brand leverage, personality leverage and intellectual leverage. In fact, there are many ways to surpass your competitors not using financial leverage as a tool.
Independent bookshops have a big advantage over their bigger rivals in that they are small enough to get to know their customers individually. They see them, they talk to them, they recognise regulars, and they know how to keep them coming back. It’s about a mass market of one. There’s no point in trying to replicate a large chain, instead, they leverage the things that matter more, that makes it an appealing place to come and buy your books.
The value of an individual customer is always greater for small businesses than for large corporations. Your business is important to me. The stores, restaurants, and other small businesses that we use are more in touch with our needs. The primary reason is that small businesses are able to feel their own pulse.
Kindles and Nooks will eventually be replaced by the next technical advance in competition for readers’ time and money. The trick for independent bookshops is to focus and leverage on the human, tactile qualities that sets them apart from the impersonal screens and buttons of electronic devices.
4. Velocity Your greatest and most powerful business survival strategy is going to be the speed at which you handle the speed of change. Goliath was armed with a shield, spear and a sword but David had only a sling and a stone. Now what was the difference?
The weapons of both David and Goliath had the potential to kill but the difference emerged in their speed. Though David’s weapon was cheaper, lighter and smaller, it had the ability to reach its target faster than that of Goliath. The sling and stone had the power of speed. How fast is your plan and how fast is your strategy?
The booksellers who have succeeded in the Amazon age have adapted their business model. They compete on stock selection, knowledgeable staff and the ambient environment in the shops, with many holding events, book groups and café facilities. Indies’ efforts in becoming part of the community, as well as giving personalised customer service, has helped to provide promising signs of growth. Good independents have become exceptionally good. They move fast.
5. Agile Strategy In business, you must develop a smart strategy to help you achieve your aim. David was strategic in his approach. His strategy was to subdue Goliath with minimal effort. To ensure the successful implementation of this strategy, David employed the following tactics:
- He picked five stones instead of one just in case the first stone didn’t make the hit.
- He avoided engaging Goliath in a hand-to-hand combat
- He exploited Goliath’s ego and over confidence
- He aimed at achieving his goal with the first shot
- He took Goliath by surprise and caught him off guard
Big companies suffer when they lose touch with the granularity and simplicity of their business, they are complacent about their customer. Often they make compromises in quality and service, thinking customers won’t swap to a smaller operator, they rely on automation. Often, they’re not close enough to their customers.
Readers have shown they are willing to pay a little more to keep local bookstores alive. At the same time, many like the convenience and cheaper prices of ordering online. The indie bookshop can’t do everything, so they have to do the right things and do them well. That means stocking a thoughtfully chosen eclectic collection of books, filling the shop with staff who are first and foremost booksellers, and saying no to e-books.
As journalist Alec MacGillis observes in his recent book, Fulfilment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, Amazon has assembled asymmetrical advantages for itself at almost every level of business. But there’s a lot of dead Kindles in cupboards now. This backlash against e-books is partly because readers care about where they source their books.
Independent booksellers are the lantern bearers of culture and creativity against mass market suppliers, with many things to offer that Amazon can’t. Yes, you can have something arrive quickly at your door, but it’s impersonal. They show us that with a smart ‘David v Goliath’ strategy, any startup can make its mark against larger competitors.