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22 January 2020
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TheBookGuide@fourteen - where are we now?

It’s two years since I wrote ‘An end of term report’ about the state of the UK’s secondhand and antiquarian bookshops and TheBookGuide’s role in promoting them - so where are we now?

What strikes me most is that one thing remains resolutely unchanged. I’m still constantly being told that secondhand bookshops have nearly died out, and that the remainder are rapidly being killed off by charity bookshops and the internet.

This is despite the fact that we are currently listing 1188 secondhand bookshops, only 259 of which are run by charities. Whilst it is true that the number of independent shops has declined over 10 years, it doesn’t appear to me that the growth in charity bookshops has had anywhere near the sort of impact that is often claimed*.

The fact is that charity bookshops have simply replaced many of the independent bookshops that primarily sold paperback fiction and general modern secondhand books. And they now play an important role in selling these internet-devalued books that are actually uneconomic for many independent shops to stock. Prices are often very attractive and occasionally one can still find a real bargain. And yes, I know, they sometimes also ask for some very silly prices too …

However, it’s clear from our readers’ reviews that they are much less interested in who runs a bookshop, than they are in how good it is at satisfying their very diverse tastes and preferences. The mix of secondhand bookshop ownership is in a constant state of flux, but in 2014 more charity bookshops closed than opened, and more independents opened than closed - a trend which I think is likely to continue.

So, irrespective of who runs them, we should be celebrating the fact that in 2014 we listed the largest number of bookshops ever - the vast majority of which are still in main street locations and open during advertised times.

And when it comes to celebrating bookshops, TheBookGuide’s readers are at the forefront. Largely due to a torrent of emails during the summer, we now have more than 2300 bookshop reviews on the site and the weekly roundup link to the most recent has an avid following.

These reviews are the most obvious manifestation of our readers’ commitment to supporting physical bookshops, but perhaps of even greater value are their unseen contributions. Readers continue to discover unknown shops, report closures and provide all sorts of updates and support. Last year, three readers reported shop closures within days of the event (something owners often forget to do), and we are often informed of things like changes in opening times by readers, before the shop owner gets round to it.

All this has significantly improved the TheBookGuide’s breadth of coverage, usefulness and reliability - something that would have been impossible to achieve without this level of voluntary input. Thank you all.

Two years ago I also wrote about a number of improvements we would be making to the front end of the site. I’m sorry to say that progress has been frustratingly slow. The basic work is now done and we are very close to being able to implement the improved site. However, the time needed to finish the data checking necessary to integrate four databases and for making lots of small decisions, continues to elude me. I’ve set myself the target of May for TheBookGuide to show its new face - the vagaries of life permitting.

I also wrote about trying to get to grips with Twitter as one of the ways of promoting the site, and in this I’ve had some success. TheBookGuide account doesn’t have huge numbers of followers, mainly I think because I don’t automatically follow those who follow me. Reading my twitter feed is already like looking for needles in a very large haystack, so it’s a task I only add to reluctantly.

Despite this our retweet, impression and engagement rates are generally high. What this means in plain English is that twitter is proving really useful in promoting the site and its content to an audience who might otherwise be unaware of it.

I’m also promoting TheBookGuide on other websites, in newsletters and the media generally. TheBookGuide is currently advertised on theviaLibri book search website and ads will be running in The Antique Trade Calendar and other vintage and antiques publications.

Of course, I’m not just promoting bookshops but also book fairs and sales, live book auctions and bookbinders. The book fairs section is beginning to develop their own user community and I’m confident that this will continue to grow next year.

Well that’s the update, so what about the future? For all of us who want to continue buying and selling books face to face, 2015 needs to be about getting ourselves seen and heard. For once and for all we need to give the lie to the much reported ‘death’ of the bookshop and the book fair.

I’ve already commented on the invaluable job our readers do in highlighting what they see as the best (and occasionally the worst) secondhand bookshops in the country. These recommendations range from cheap and cheerful charity shops and quirky bookstalls - to specialist dealers bookrooms and high-end treasure houses. It’s this variety of voices that makes TheBookGuide so readable.

But what about the shop owners and fair managers whose businesses are listed here - are they making the most of the free opportunities to publicise themselves?

Bookshop descriptions which are imaginatively written and fair previews that provide a taste of what will be on offer DO make a difference. Advertising DOES work. And trite as it sounds: the more you put in, the more you will get out.

I’m often told by booksellers that they don’t know how to ‘sell’ themselves or their businesses through writing advertising copy. I’ve responded to this by producing a crib sheet for bookshop owners and another for fair organisers listing on TheBookGuide.

So come on, no excuses - let’s make some noise about how and where to get physical with old books in 2015.

Mike Goodenough

*I’ve written previously about these subjects in ‘Rumours of the secondhand bookshop's death are greatly exaggerated’ (2005) ‘The writing on the wall’ (2009) and ‘Now we are ten’ (2011). The first two attempted to address the endless scare stories about the certain death of bookshops (and to give some figures) whilst the most recent looked at the development of TheBookGuide over 10 years.