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Indies in the ascendant

21 January 2008

The New Year has brought some welcome news on independent publishing and bookselling, both of which are especially important to writers.

The UK figures for 2006 show that 96 stores closed and only 64 opened. This has been turned around in 2007, with 81 new independent bookshops opening and only 72 closing. Meryl Halls, Head of Membership Services at the Booksellers' Association, said: 'As one of our members has said, 2007 saw the renaissance of the independent bookselling sector, and this story would seem to be borne out by both new shops opening and sales performance.'

Book Marketing Limited's figures showed a 2007 increase of 6% in volume sales from independents, compared to a 3% fall at the chains. More people seem to be valuing their local bookshops, and the stores that have survived the cull of recent years have worked out how to retain their customers and are now fighting fit.

This doesn't explain the phenomenal optimism shown by those opening the new stores. Michael Neil of wholesaler Bertrams said that people 'like the idea of being a bookseller. It's seen as a noble thing to do. As the chain bookstores have consolidated over the past 18 months, there are opportunities for good local indies to step in'. You can see this in action in a place like the city of Bath, where high-profile bookshop casualties have been succeeded in the past year by high-profile successes, such as Topping & Co.

On the publishing front there is the success of the Independent Alliance. This powerful group of mid-sized independents has shown that banding together to support a really good sales operation is a good way to build independent publishers' sales. The Alliance reckons that it is now the right size, and will not be adding any further publishers. Its success has inspired others to follow and will hopefully lead to further groupings involving other small publishers. Since big publishers concentrate on the chains, smaller ones have a real opportunity to sell more effectively into the independent bookshops.

All of this is encouraging news for writers. It is big publishers' and bookshop chains' focus on bestsellers which has cramped the opportunities for new writers to get published. But independent publishers and booksellers can focus on individual books and authors, and back their hunches, if they choose, provided that they can survive and run successful businesses.

It's good news that book-buyers have responded to this more bookish approach. It may not be helping independent booksellers directly (although many have developed effective websites) but the web also provides a brilliant way for a huge range of books from publishers of all sizes to find readers.