Lord John Bird has thrown his support behind independent booksellers as they take their fight to level the playing field with industry giants Amazon and Waterstones to parliament.
The Big Issue founder teamed up with Arts Council England CEO Darren Henley to launch the Independent Bookshop Alliance in Westminster today.
Around 130 independent booksellers have joined forces to build a “social Amazon” capable of collectively bargaining with publishers, allowing the same access to tax breaks and exclusive editions enjoyed by retail big-hitters.
Simon Key, founder of Wood Green’s Big Green Bookshop, became the figurehead of the movement after penning a post on his blog in January outlining his plans to give independent booksellers a louder voice in the industry in a bid to keep the pillars of the community alive.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Lord Bird, who warned the government about the damage of illiteracy across Britain and the crisis facing public libraries and independent bookshops in 2016, backed the plan with a Westminster launch that also attracted authors, publishers and wholesalers.
“To me, a town, village or city is empty without the power of a bookshop,” he said. “The power to turn a high street into something that holds a vast social echo. That, through its increasing presence, will be full of readings, discussions, and (at times) nice cups of tea.
“That is why we have to fight for bookshops. Every last one is precious to us, our quality of our life, our literature, our public spaces and communities. We have to do whatever is humanly possible. That is why – from book thief to bookshop defender – I am in love with the new initiative called the Independent Bookshop Alliance. And I was pleased to bring them to parliament to launch their initiative.
— John Bird (@johnbirdswords) March 29, 2018
“We must protect and proactively help these centres of social good. We must try and get communities to adopt them, for local authorities to see them as a plus in their boroughs and cities, for publishers to see them as equals. And we must link this fight to the battles to save our libraries and also to enhance schools’ campaigns to make more of our children literate.”
The launch also attracted supporters from across the books world with authors, publishers and industry experts voicing their praise.
Author of the Rivers of London urban fantasy series, Ben Aaronovitch, said: “Independent book shops are very important. You need people who know what they’re doing and you form attachments to independent bookshops.
“We need an ecology that promotes a variety of ideas. We’ll regret losing them and libraries if we let them go.”
— Mandy Powell (@Minimorticia) March 29, 2018
Andrew Franklin, the co-founder of publisher Profile Books, said: “As a publisher we benefit hugely from independent bookshops. I’m wholly in favour of this alliance. As a publisher, we support it.”
Meryl Halls, managing director of trade body Booksellers Association, added: “Independent bookshops in communities are frequently community heroes. We urge government to fix problems the independent bookshops face on the high street.”
Baroness Gail Rebuck, Random House Group chair and Labour peer, also praised the alliance and said: “This [alliance] is very timely. The role of bookshops in isolated areas is so important for bringing communities together.”
The Big Issue’s #WhyBooksMatter campaign was launched last year to help give those who need it most access to books to improve literacy and help to dismantle poverty. The campaign was taken a step further with the Big Books Giveaway – inviting readers to tell the magazine about groups who needed books the most so they could share the joy of reading with those who ordinarily do not get the chance.
Arts Council England’s Henley said: “Bookshops are to readers what galleries are to art-lovers; they are our leisure spaces, our tourist destinations, the places we go to browse and receive inspiration. Independent bookshops need to be given a louder voice and the same opportunities as retailers in the sector to sustain such a superb cultural offer.
“The Independent Bookshop Alliance will help bookshops find that voice, and find ways to place more books into the hands of more people, and sustain the presence of independent bookshops around the country.”