Centring independent bookshops and how they’ve fared in the pandemic, Your Cart Is Full brought booksellers together in a fascinating discussion of resilience through 2020. Vikki Reilly, marketing and events manager at Publishing Scotland, was joined by Sally Pattle of Far From the Madding Crowd in Linlithgow; Mairi Oliver of Lighthouse Books, Edinburgh’s radical bookshop; Samantha Williams of BookLove, the Multicultural Travelling Book Carnival based in London; and Natalie Whittle, of the newly-established Outwith Books in Govanhill.
A natural starting point for our times, we began with how our panellists’ businesses had been affected by the pandemic. The transition from having a purely informational website to one fit for selling was necessary for all panellists, and for Mairi, Lighthouse’s new website gained them a new, global audience both for selling books and shaping digital events. Sally has established a number of innovative collaborations (such as Wee Three Indies) to aid her business, after going from being open everyday to losing 241 trading days so far.
As a travelling carnival with a focus on schools and community, Samantha had to completely adapt her business model and found the transition to online challenging, with a dip in sales in the first lockdown. Being an anti-racist, Black-owned business meant BookLove’s sales then rocketed after the BLM movement gained traction in June 2020 as readers sought to support Black writers, before slowing down again as time went on.
Starting Outwith Books during the pandemic, Natalie found confidence in lockdown to explore a book-ordering service after setting up the business as a creative writing space. Lockdown helped her establish a physical bookselling space for when the world opened up again and has found a warm response from the local community.
The question then turned to how they’ve reached customers. Lighthouse found success through social media, using Instagram to reach an audience they wouldn’t have done so otherwise. This image-driven platform meant selling a different variety of books – featuring the Instagram-worthy covers on their page. Alternatively, Samantha noted her struggle with social media. As an anti-racist activist first, she has found it draining to create a selling space in an arena where discourse on racism is unceasing, and she’s looking forward to returning to the travelling carnival again.
Sally noted that curated online lists and a strong Twitter presence has helped to connect with customers, as has offering recommendations on Facebook and making sure to constantly refresh Far From’s online content. They have also teamed up with other Linlithgow businesses to create gifts and remind people that they're still there; being enterprising in a local capacity has been important to Mairi, too. However, Mairi also noted the conflict she felt in having to sell books (as a radical bookshop with people on a payroll), while others in the community are suffering through the pandemic.
Thinking about the popular books of last year, both Natalie and Sally singled out Shuggie Bain – the Scottish success that we spotlighted with our Publishing Shuggie Bain panel. For Sally, sales of smaller titles fell (those picked up from browsing or in-person recommendations), so these bestsellers were a huge help in covering losses. Alternatively, having found their voice on social media, Mairi noted people to be more suggestible – Lighthouse’s ‘individual’ recommendations now being broadcast to hundreds of people.
Finally, the panel came back to publishers, and how they can best help booksellers. Reflecting on her interactions with publishers, Samantha noted that this has been largely negative. Describing these 'White corporate structures' where 'their vision and my vision aren’t always the same' highlighted the need for greater support and empathy for booksellers, and the greater need for scrutinising discrimination within publishing.
Natalie called for more collaboration and information to be shared, encouraging publishers to engage with community reviewers who promote a more natural voice than the often militant publicity campaigns of large publishers. Mairi singled out sales agency Inpress, highlighting that when big publishers neglected bookshops in the pandemic, Inpress continued to meet all their indie publisher needs. She also called attention to the unnecessary publicity materials Lighthouse receives – 'stop justifying your jobs by creating stuff, it’s environmentally unsustainable' – and asked that publishers take the time to listen to booksellers: 'we know our customers so much better than your marketing departments, I promise'.
Some food for thought for emerging publishers! Making us appreciate how resilient and adaptable they’ve been, this discussion only strengthened our love for these brilliant indie bookshops.