For the love of bookshops: Mark Forsyth, IBW2014 and The Future of the Book

What could be more lovely?

A sultry summer evening, a glass of Pimms, a crowd of book enthusiasts and a bestselling author gathered in the courtyard garden at Mostly Books.

It felt slightly surreal then to find ourselves discussing the very future of books and bookshops.

But why the need for a debate?

Surely independent bookshops are much-loved and have a secure future? Is there a real threat? Are people seriously suggesting that independent bookshops will be squeezed into extinction?

The gathering was to mark Independent Booksellers Week – an industry initiative given wholehearted industry support from publishers to authors, the media and readers – which specifically sets out to remind people of the value an independent bookshop can bring to their community. 

It urges people to re-engage with their local bookshop and to rediscover that bookshops really do add ‘something else’ to their communities, to reading and to shopping for books.

A traditional part of the week has been the writing of an essay, published as a small pamphlet, that invites people to celebrate independent bookshops. 

This year’s is entitled 'The Unknown Unknown' and was penned by Mark Forsyth, who writes delightful quirky books, including ‘The Etymologicon’, based on his passion for words. Mark was on a big IBW tour of bookshops, and was fresh from a previous evening's visit to Foyles, taking part in 'The Great Bookshop Debate'.

He was invited to Mostly Books to discuss whether we are seeing the beginning of the end of the independent bookshop – or if it is a sector creative and robust enough to continue to find ways to have a healthy future.

The Unknown Unknown’ celebrates the joy of finding a bookshop, of being in a bookshop with the time to browse, and to discover a book you would never otherwise have even known you wanted to read.

‘Discoverability’ as it is known in the book trade.

Debating with Mark Forsyth for the evening was Mark Thornton of Mostly Books, who started off playing devil’s advocate, asking when bookshops are so clearly well-loved and so well supported – is there even a need to have a special week to remind people to celebrate them? Or is it - as one of customers wryly remarked last week via a Tom Lehrer reference - merely a week to patch over problems that loom all too large for the other 51 weeks of the year?

Do people really need reminding to go out and do something as pleasurable as reconnecting with a real bookshop and discovering an Unknown Unknown within?

A show of hands revealing that nearly half of the audience like to read on electronic devices (though not exclusively) was a clear demonstration of a trend that didn’t even exist a few years ago that bookshops now have to compete with.

How to stay relevant in this digital age, and to stay profitable and in business in the face of the rapid decline in sales of print books, has very quickly gone to the front of this debate.

Mark Forsyth explained how, as an author, he is aware how the Kindle is changing the nature of discoverability. Anecdotally from his publisher he is aware that, when new, popular and bestselling books are offered as an eBook ‘deal of the day’ for 99 pence, there are plenty of purchases not just of the eBook, but of the print book too.

To offer a book for such a cheap price is a persuasive way of getting people to try a book you didn’t even know you wanted and to some extent simulates the serendipity of browsing, but without the need to switch off the computer and go out into the world. To judge by our own conversations with Kindle users, this is an increasingly popular way of discovering new books. In fact, many Kindle try never to pay full price, and instead wait until books are on offer.

Discoverability, and the ability of independent bookshops to provide this, has seen much news coverage this week, with several authors adding their voices to the thought that they would never be around today if their sales had been purely down to whether they generate buzz on the internet. 

If you can’t explain the concept in 140 characters and tweet it today, authors are finding it increasingly difficult to get anyone to buy and read their books – particularly new authors.

Jonny Geller, the literary agent and joint CEO of Curtis Brown, said in the Daily Telegraph: ‘There's a whole mid-range of novels that don't have a hook or spectacular angle that would have been published five years ago, but fewer publishers want to take the risk. When the Borders and the Ottakars [bookshops] started closing, the market for more experimental novels and novelists with no track record got smaller.’

E-readers have meant that for a short time there has been a boom in book sales; the total book market grew for the first time in twenty years last year as the surge in eBook sales more than made up for the drop in print sales.

EBooks are now 48 per cent of total fiction sales (they were seven per cent in 2012, with sales up by 366 per cent last year) and in 2014 they are predicted to overtake sales of fiction paperbacks. 

And as at least 90 per cent of eBooks sold are on the Kindle, which can only be bought on Amazon, this is less than brilliant news for independent booksellers. 

Figures show that the UK eBook market is set to triple over the next four years and will by then have overtaken the paperback and hardback as the preferred option for reading novels, as sales of print editions as expected to fall by more than a third in that time.
Why are eBooks so popular was something else up for discussion.

"Now, where did I put my
copy of 'The Etymologicon?"
One aspect of its appeal that we debated was that digital devices help overcome the problem of all the physical space you need to have a really good library. 

Having too many books can be a problem with deciding to allow yourself something new to read. And people have difficulties in knowing what to do with all the books that they have – even those they don’t think they will read again. 

Everyone agreed that books are difficult things to give away.

(Except Mark Forsyth – who caused ripples of consternation when he mentioned he had recently been on a long trip around Europe, and found a fascinating delight in disposing of the books as he read them – putting them in bins or recycling containers, or throwing them out of the train window.)

Perhaps we need to encourage people to sacrifice all the old books taking up room and make space for an Unknown Unknown?

However, Mark said he couldn’t possibly do without his library at home, but agreed that people are buying fewer books, and now being far more selective, tending towards buying print copies only of titles they wish to keep on their shelves, being happy to have the rest as eBooks, taking fewer risks with physical books.

The questions of storage, or possessing a physical book, was further explored following a question about the reading habits of teens. It was pointed out that, given the audience sitting in the Mostly Books garden, you could accuse an event with an author and bookseller as simply 'preaching to the converted'. Today's kids are growing up 'digital natives', and whilst an older generation might wax lyrical about 'the smell of books', etc. the next generation may not have that affinity to physical books - and instead may be more interested in social aspects of reading online - sharing favourite authors, snapchatting shots of reading the current 'must-read', reading from Wattpad, and even writing fan fiction.

The question was perhaps left unanswered, although Mark Thornton explained that at a number of recent events at secondary schools a common phrase heard was 'I've got it on my Kindle'. This seems like the perfect 'talk to the hand' teenage response to quickly shut down any discussion about whether they might want to engage with the book at all - particularly in front of peers where it might not be cool. Whether the book was already on their Kindle - and more importantly, whether it had been read - goes to the heart of possibly a new kind of consumerist experience, that of having 'experienced' the book socially without actually having read it. As social buzz about books explodes, and 'fear of missing out' is almost classified as a psychological condition, the form of response is perhaps understandable. You can only read so many books.

Forces combined: Mostly Books and Abingdon Library
jointly welcomed Rachel Joyce and  'The Unlikely
Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' in 2012
There were other questions from the audience: in an age of austerity, surely more people should be using libraries, so did bookshops see libraries as competitors? Both Marks categorically agreed 'no'. Independent bookshops and libraries were natural partners, and research has shown that more library users in a community means more book buyers, because of an overall rise in the level of a love of books. It is interesting to note that libraries are facing their own existential threat - albeit for very different reasons.

So, if Independent Booksellers Week is all about visiting a physical bookshop, what can bookshops do to make people want to head to their local high street to visit them? How can we get more people to want to discover their next Unknown Unknown on the high street?

Mark Forsyth definitely felt that curating the stock choice, with fewer bestsellers, fewer celebrity biographies – and less room for coffee and more room for books, were definitely on his wishlist for the bookshop of the future.

Mark Thornton agreed that bookshops needed to keep at the very top of their game in terms of events and curation, services and community. But he also agreed with one audience member who said that, ideally, readers would have the best of both worlds: eBooks and physical, High Street and the Internet. But the economics of being on the High Street does represent a real and present 'Reality Gap' that may not be overcome.

Whatever we feel about independent bookshops, the figures tell their own story.
In the past 10 years, the number of independent booksellers in Britain has halved. More than 500 independent outlets have shut since 2005. Last year 67 local bookshops closed, leaving 987 still trading – the first time it has fallen below 1000.

The story is not the same all over the world. In France booksellers cannot discount French-language books by more than 5 per cent below the list price and there are grants and loans available to those looking to start up bookstores. France has 2,500 bookstores, with e-books counting for just 1.8 per cent of the market.

As the number of bookshop closures mean the distance between independents grows ever larger, some bookshops have turned themselves into multi-purpose outlets (from cafes to chocolate concessions, ice-cream parlours to creches), or even community bookshops run by volunteers, just to survive and to find a way to keep physical bookselling alive when the economics say otherwise.

The book world continues to evolve at a bewildering pace. Last week author James Patterson announced that he is offering a grant available to keep bookshops going. This has caused a perhaps surprising number of our customers to enquire whether things are really that bad for bookshops. Will it be only through the support of grants that they can continue to provide much loved services, as bookshops are no longer terribly robust businesses? Are we saying the French model is not only desirable, but essential?

Are indie bookshops like elephants: we all love them, we'd hate them to disappear from the wild, but commercial realities are causing more of them to disappear and in the end - and, you know, the world won't end if they do.

Looking at the figures it is hard not to conclude that in a very few short years the preferred way of the personal reading of fiction is very fast becoming digital - and the preferred way of discovering new reads and authors is online. 

Is it because there are fewer and fewer bookshops around, or is it more to do with the fact that as we lead busier and busier lives, something like browsing in a bookshop is a luxury we no longer find the time for? Or are we genuinely falling out of love with print books, except as gifts? And are we falling out of love with bookshops?

If browsing is a dying art, then here is a recent experience that may offer a way forward.
A few weeks ago, a local English teacher brought in a dozen of her pupils (boys aged 14-15) to buy something challenging and different for their Summer reading, outside the usual YA genre. The experience was nothing short of amazing. We were challenged to select and display a range of new books and authors, we spoke to them about the skill in selecting a book in a bookshop:'How to Browse 101'. Sullen faces and closed body-language evaporated as a genuine excitement about choosing books was turbo-charged with one-on-one conversations - and even customers joined in. It was one of those pieces of magic in a bookshop that we would love to replicate with other schools next year.

In one hour, all the strengths of a bookshop - community, education, physicality, passion, enthusiasm, expertise, curation - came together to produce a moment of real and lasting value. This is, in our opinion, what IBW is attempting to do, a great way of giving people an opportunity to try to find some time to think about bookselling on the high street - and to find an unexpected new book to read.

As IBW draws to a close for another year it is always worth reminding people that bookselling is a joy and a privilege – helping people discover new books and authors from our side of the counter is something we love to do. Providing a community hub for people to meet and engage with books feels like something worthwhile.

We're fortunate at Mostly Books to have an amazing, and diverse, range of hugely supportive customers. They are as likely to be in the shop, discovering new titles, when the snow is piled high in January as when queues form out of the door on the last Saturday before Christmas. We also have seasonal visitors who - often with no independent near them - take the opportunity to visit, share and discover new books whilst travelling, or visiting family and friends.

We really hope High Street bookselling is something that continues to be enjoyed and appreciated.

Our sincere thanks to Mark Forsyth and Icon Books for organising the tour and for selecting us to be amongst some very august bookshops to host the visit during Independent Booksellers Week. Thanks also to the Bookseller's Association for their herculean efforts to make IBW happen.

If you still haven’t paid us a visit to celebrate then any time over the summer we will be pleased to see you – and hopefully you will also discover an Unknown Unknown to discover, to take home and treasure.


  1. Well said - a splendid post. I love your bit about the boys being brought in to choose books outside their comfort zone - if only more teachers were able to do that!

  2. I think more teachers would, and we're going to talk to other schools about this in September. We discounted the books slightly, the school made a contribution, so everyone benefited.