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26 January 2017

Traditional bookselling in a digital age

Alastair Lynn blogs on his experiences as an Academic Bookseller for Academic Book Week 2017.

I often consider how fortunate I am to be working at the Press' Bookshop and showroom in the centre of Cambridge.  The shop is located in one of the best retail spaces in Cambridge and boasts a stunning view across to the University Senate House and King's College Chapel.  Not only that but we can claim to be continuing a noble tradition in being the latest in a long line of booksellers that have operated continuously from this site since around 1581, making it the oldest bookshop site in the country.  Thus it is the ideal location from which to sell the publications of the oldest publisher.  However that heritage can seem at risk in the face of new technologies and the dawning digital age. 

Recent years have witnessed the closure of many bookshops on the high street and Cambridge has not been immune to that with half a dozen bookshops closing in as many years.  Therefore, being not just an academic bookshop but one that only sells books from one publisher can feel daunting and precarious to say the least.  Having once been fairly eeyore-ish about the situation I'm now much more optimistic.

New undergraduates are increasingly accustomed to finding the information they need online and given the cost of their education are understandably reluctant to buy books that might only be required for one term or even just a few weeks.  However whilst we see far fewer undergraduates buying their textbooks from us than we did say 10 years ago, we continue to have large numbers of visiting scholars calling in when they're in Cambridge on study leave or attending conferences.  They are grateful to find an academic bookshop that has the breadth and depth of titles that ours does. The majority of traditional campus stores in university towns have morphed into stationery and giftware outlets with a few textbooks thrown in for good measure.  In comparison we have somewhere in the region of 50,000 titles on our shelves which are supplemented by a huge backlist of print on demand titles that we can rustle up within a few days.  Indeed it's those POD titles that now account for almost half of our daily sales.  Of course many are monographs which, once made available in paperback in this way, finally become affordable to a greater number of readers.  So the backlist is key for us and one of our key strengths lies in being able to showcase the best of it.

Today academic book publishing is increasingly engaging with the concept of the crossover book and those that we publish sell really well and help to entice new customers across the threshold.   One example of this is the recent title  A Fortunate Universe which has seen superb coverage in the media and its authors are both active on social media.  These are things that we are able to engage with and capitalise on as booksellers and that are increasingly pertinent to a book's success.  Social media works well for bookshops.  It functions as an extra shop window without the constraints of location.  Our followers are startlingly international and yet some show the loyalty and curiosity of our local regular customers.  Authors are also vocal in their appreciation of any focus we give to their books and link us to wider academic communities which are navigating social media and pioneering ways of harnessing its potential.  Who would have thought for instance that medieval historians would have such a presence on Twitter?  

So whilst at first the new digital age might have been expected to sound the death knell of bookshops it has in fact become a great boon.  Even Amazon, which is routinely decried as the great enemy of the high street, has actually opened and extended our customer base.  Sure we inevitably lose sales to customers who want to find the best deal online for every purchase but our sales to customers across Europe via our Amazon marketplace storefront more than makes up for any customers we miss out on along the high street. Today we sell books to customers in Copenhagen as well as Cambridge and now we're reaching out to the rest of the world from the oldest bookshop site in the country. 

Public Relations Manager
Tel: +44 (0)1223 326194
Email: press@cambridge.org

 

 

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