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The Bookseller’s Association’s ‘Summer Book’ list: catalogue or capitalism?

The Bookseller’s Association (BA) plan to release a Summer Catalogue of books, published by independent companies, and sold by indie booksellers. It comes as a response to the impact of Covid-19 on these niche and important markets. Amidst record sales of books for companies like Waterstones, the BA is looking to help smaller companies ride the wave of success in bookselling that the coronavirus has created. 

However, as reported by The Guardian, many of these sales were of ‘bucket-list’ books, including longer novels and traditional classics. Therefore we must question whether the BA’s move will be a success. If the readers are turning to the canon for more difficult, historical or critically acclaimed literature to challenge them when they’ve got nothing else to do, will they be as receptive as consumers to books published by smaller publishing companies?

Indie booksellers choose the texts advertised in the catalogue, alongside optional promotional information, such as social media and website details for their shops

The Summer Catalogue’s prototype, the Christmas Catalogue, produced record sales, but Mantel topped the bestsellers list, further demonstrating the issue with customers wanting recognisable fiction, and acclaimed non-fiction, like the incredibly popular and relevant Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo Lodge. This seemingly reduces the successes this advertising approach could have for smaller publishing companies, as their books may be in less demand than those of Penguin, for example. 

Despite this, the initiative can produce real success for the indie booksellers themselves, who will stock popular books alongside more niche publications. They actually choose the texts advertised in the catalogue, alongside optional promotional information, such as social media and website details for their shops. As well as providing exposure for these shops individually, this gives them the opportunity to tailor the catalogue to what they think or know their customers will want, rather than being chosen or delegated by pure figures. These indie booksellers will have a really refreshing level of agency, with the BA giving them the platform which will hopefully keep existing customers engaged in indie booksellers, and bring new customers in who are keen to diversify their reading list during the summer. 

Which genres, which writers, from what backgrounds and viewpoints, will be represented in this catalogue?

There is, however, an unpleasant undertone with this marketing campaign that is hard to ignore. Mantel’s introduction to the Christmas Catalogue that produced such success reads: “Our independent bookshops are so much more than a counter and a till – they’re a way of life. You can get what you want, and so much more – so much to enhance the imagination and nourish a sense of community.”

This image of discovery and freedom that indie bookshops facilitate and nurture does not comply with the targeted advertising and narrow selection presented in the BA’s catalogue initiative. If the benefit and beauty of these shops is their sense of community and diversity, then the selection of marketable books, whether autonomously done by booksellers, or by corporations, controls and influences what the customers will buy and what they will read. This siphons off much of the power and uniqueness that comes with being ‘independent’ sellers, who provide a different experience to the ‘cookie cutter’ nature of chain stores, surrendering choice and individuality for profit. This campaign differs from suggestions, genre sections and search refiners in store and online because of the total and finite nature of the physical catalogue; the selection represented will be contained, predetermined and limited. This raises questions of which genres, which writers, from what backgrounds and viewpoints, will be represented in this catalogue, rather than letting the customers and members of this “way of life” choose for themselves. 

Here, it must be asked if the BA’s move, although providing much needed income for independent booksellers, seems counterintuitive to what they intrinsically represent? Not only does this move seemingly sideline or remove the importance of smaller publishing companies to the nature and diversity of indie bookshops, but it also threatens to homogenise the bookselling market, dissolving the communities and individuality that makes indie bookshops so valuable.

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