Yet another long, warm summer evening and I was in the Dog & Pheasant in Shrewsbury talking publishing to Susan Caroline of Pengwern Books. Our much-loved local indie bookshop has had a checkered life since opening in Fish Street in 2003, and so has Susan. Her doggedness is astonishing. Keeping in business in the current book-selling climate has taken a lot of ducking and diving. Pengwern Books has had a variety of homes, not least of which has been to the immediate right of the altar in St Alkmund’s Church, courtesy of vicar and PCC - which proved a real refuge when it looked as though Shrewsbury’s only independent contemporary book shop might go down.
Nowadays, however, Pengwern Books is thriving in Shrewsbury’s indoor market, a central part of its current renaissance, situated next to Julia Wenlock’s chocolate shop and a stone’s throw from the delightfully quirky Bird’s Nest café. Susan talked to me about that move, and about her life-long love of books. I wanted to know why her window displays were so good. I literally never pass without wanting to buy something, and probably more than one something, though strangely Susan reckoned window dressing was her weakest point. She went on gut instinct, she said, though she’d never knowingly buy an ugly book. Design was important, the covers really mattered, but what mattered as much as anything was knowing her customers and listening to what they told her.
‘The book business is all about customer relations,’ Susan said. ‘People think you can just set up and sell books and press the till, but there’s so much more than that to learn. Books are about people, and bookshops need to be too. Even in my tiny shop I have room for an armchair and a kettle. You have to get to know your customers in this business.’
So why am I telling you all this – especially here on Authors Electric, dedicated to the e-book market? I’m telling you because the e-book market is viewed as a threat to traditional publishing and everything to do with it, and that includes small independent bookshops. Currently, I’m told, there’s not a single indie bookshop in Birmingham. For dedicated readers this has turned book buying into a bit of a tourist industry, driving out from the city to enjoy the pleasure of sitting in, say, Anna Dreda’s Wenlock Books at Much Wenlock or Susan’s Pengwern Books in Shrewsbury Market. And who’s getting blamed for this? Apart from Amazon, of course? Why, us ebook writers, publishers and sellers, promoting new ways of buying.
Frankly, this is something that has worried me for a long time. I happen to think that readers lose out greatly without the possibility of finding ‘a new favourite writer in a small curated shop with a well-read bookseller who has some idea of their taste’ [the Guardian’s words, not mine]. And, equally, I think that authors stand to lose out - and not just paper authors either.
Without the independents – and I’m including online indies in this too [and by ‘independents’ I mean those book-selling and promoting outlets that aren’t run by accountants or marketing companies, but dedicated readers/booksellers] - reading will become blander because the choice won’t be there, and writing will become blander too. Indeed, it’s the independent bookshops who’ve nursed the career of many of a writer through their troughs to their successes. Hilary Mantel for example - would her publishers have stuck by her, over all those years before she hit it big, without traditional bookselling keeping her in the public eye - or at the very least on the shelf?
Yet how can the little back-of-the-High-Street independent bookshop compete with the online market and the convenience of click-and-deliver shopping, especially for readers who don’t have time, or access to the nearest bookshop? In the Dog & Pheasant the other night, Susan came up with an answer. ‘Email www.hive.co.uk,’ she said. ‘It’s a massive online shop set up by Gardiner’s, one of the UK’s biggest book wholesalers, and the last of the independents, to provide an online platform for purchasing books, including e-books, music and DVDs. All you have to do is set up an account, just as you would with Amazon, then you can choose your local bookshop as your nominated store and a percentage of the sale will go them, as if you’d bought it in their shop. It’s as easy as that. You can buy online to your heart’s content, and have it delivered to home, or in the case of e-books to your e-reader, but you’re not doing down your local independent. You’re actually helping it.’
Plainly you have to be ingenious to keep selling books these days. ‘Working the way I do is bloody hard sometimes,’ Susan says. ‘But it’s worth it. I’m proud to see Pengwern Books still here, despite everything, doing what it always did. If it’s out there, I’ll help people find the books they want. The written word is important. I love what I do.’
People like Susan need our support. What they’re doing needs support. Susan’s dedication to books is second to none. Recently she had a short trip to hospital, but within hours was planning what tomorrow’s tasks would be and how quickly she could get out. ‘But that’s what it’s like,’ she says, ‘when you’re running a business on your own. There are things you just have to do. There’s no one else to do them for you.’
The following day, I tried out Hive. I clicked the link www.hive.co.uk, and up came its home page. I selected a book and was offered a choice of hardback, paperback or e-book. Once it was in my basket, I was directed to open an account, giving me the option to choose my favourite bookshop. I selected Pengwern Books and up came everything I’d need to know, including opening times and a map. I proceeded to the checkout and was given the option of my book being delivered to Pengwern Books, or at home. After I’d bought my book, a message came up thanking me for supporting my local bookshop and assuring me that every time I made a purchase, regardless of whether it was delivered to the shop or at home, Pengwern Books would receive a percentage of the sale.
This seems absolutely brilliant to me, and I recommend everybody reading this to give it some thought. I now intend to go on my website and change the links to my novels from Amazon to Hive [at least as many of my books as are stocked by Hive].
There’s one final thing I want to tell you about. Unfortunately this will be my last post. I won’t go into details here, but illness in the family mean that my time needs to be apportioned differently. I am so sorry about this, especially at a time when Authors Electric has already been undergoing a few changes. I was there almost at the beginning of Authors Electric and had thought I’d be writing on this blogsite for ever. Good friends have been made whose faces I’ve never seen, and it’s been great to be part of the battle for good writing and a part too of publishing's brave new world. But this is really out of my control. In the sifting through of my commitments, and what can and can’t go, it’s a choice that’s made itself.
Hopefully one day when circumstances change I’ll be back. In the meantime this isn’t quite thank you and goodbye as I’ll be reading posts and contributing comments as and when I can [also keeping up my commitment to one year of My Tonight From Shrewsbury, which having started I feel I can't drop]. I’m sorry not to have got to know any of the new writers who’ve joined recently, and I still haven’t given up hope of putting faces to some of you. Who knows? One day maybe, when you’re passing through beautiful Shropshire on your way to the mountains of North Wales, and a road sign comes up to lovely and well worth visiting Shrewsbury, you’ll look me up. That would be great.
PS. In the time it's taken to get this written and posted, my first Hive order has arrived. Here it is: