Monday, August 4, 2014

How Not To Run A Bookshop

Me at No Alibis with some of the Belfast Noir authors' excellent books...
I was in Belfast last week and on my way out of town I dropped in on a few bookshops to sign stock. First stop was No Alibis on Botanic Avenue, Belfast's only mystery bookshop and a veritable institution that's been supporting local writers for nearly two decades now. Dave Torrans, the owner, knows how to run a bookshop in these troubled times for book sales. Dave has an event every week, be it a poetry reading or a jazz night or a conventional book reading. Dave also knows how to market books, is internet savvy and he has laid out his shop in helpful sections. Most important of all I think, Dave promotes local authors. If you've written a book and you're from Belfast Dave will have your bloody book. Chances are that if you're from anywhere in Ireland Dave will have your back on sale somewhere in the shop. 
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Contrast this with another famous bookshop in Belfast that I dropped in on to sign stock. ("Dropped in" isnt the correct phrase here, I wouldn't presume to come to a shop and demand to sign books, in fact, I had been asked to come in...) I won't name this place because I don't want to embarrass anyone, but it was a fine example of how not to run a business. When I came by to sign I was told that now was not convenient and could I return later. "I'm leaving on a plane in an hour," I explained and was huffily shown to a chair while someone looked to see if they had any of my books "lying around". Apparently they didn't, until about twenty minutes later when someone found half a dozen copies of The Sun Is God (in a storage room?) Those twenty minutes gave me ample time to look over the bookshop. Mysteries are a huge part of their turnover and they had a display for Jo Rowling, for Jo Nesbo & for some other people not called Jo. They also had a table full of Nordic Noir (which included some pretty obscure authors). There was however no display for Brian McGilloway or Stuart Neville or Colin Bateman all of whom are from Northern Ireland and are best sellers. I looked in vain for other well known Irish mystery writers. Many Irish writers with an international reputation were simply not in the shop. "You have a display table for Nordic Noir but you don't have one for Irish mystery writers? Surely that would be really popular, no?" I asked the person who brought me my books to sign. I got a dismissive grunt in response. 
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Yes I know retail bookshops are being crushed by Amazon and other online businesses but it is not smart business sense to retail only the big anonymous best sellers in your shop. Jo Nesbo is a fine writer but he's not any better than Neville or McGilloway or Tana French or John Connolly or Alex Barclay. Why not engender a sense of excitement about local writers who are doing amazing things in the genre? Why not be a bit more savvy and involved? Is that too much to ask? 
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There's a bookshop near me in St Kilda and its almost the same story. No local writers section, no sense of excitement about promoting local authors. It's an error. Not a moral error, a business error. I'm not telling bookshop owners to do this out of a sense of local responsibility, I'm telling them to do this because I think it makes sound economic sense. Yes some people want escape in their fiction choices, but other people would love to know what local authors are making of the place where they live. I worked in a bookshop for 3 years so I know a little bit about what I'm talking about. Get people excited about reading, about the local community, about your bookshop. That's how you defeat Amazon, not by slavishly selling all the boring best sellers. Yeah, it will require a little more work and a little more imagination but try it for a month or two and you'll see what I mean...