With booksellers from around the world including countries such as Morocco, India, Singapore, Slovakia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Italy, Nigeria, Poland, Ghana and the U.A.E., the first Sharjah Book Seller Conference kicked off May 16. Located in the atrium of Sharjah Publishing City, delegates were welcomed by Ahmed Al Amari of the Sharjah Book Authority, who has initiated this new event.
Monday’s keynote was given by Bodour Al-Qasimi, founder of Kalimat Publishing Group and president of the International Publishers Association, who hailed the “excellent job” booksellers do to find creative ways to engage readers and to put books in their hands. She continued, “Your efforts have become even more urgent now in the face of ever-changing readers’ needs and behaviors, together with the increasing digital distractions in everyday life. And my message to all our bookseller friends here and around the world is you are not alone. Publishers will support you in this mission, and we will achieve this goal together.”
The first panel session saw booksellers from the Middle East, Africa, and Europe talk about effective digital communication, e-commerce and social media strategies. Nana Awere Damoah of the Booknook in Ghana recommended fortnightly emails and daily updating on all social media channels, as well as frequent stock checks and data analysis to anticipate demand. “Data is meaningless,” he said, “unless you interpret it.” The importance of up-to-date mailing lists and rigorous data analysis was iterated by Mohamed Kandil of Molhimon Publishing and Distribution in the U.A.E., who also extolled the effectiveness of video content as well has putting a TikTok strategy in place.
Adedotun Eyinade, of Roving Heights in Nigeria, set up originally as an online bookstore in 2015 and then as a physical store in 2018, said that for his business Instagram was the most profitable social media channel, followed by Twitter, while noting that TikTok—and in particular BookTok—was growing fast. Working with online influencers to offer customers something special, as well as reach non-book consumers, the shop makes heavy use of user generated content and offers online as well as offline events.
Giorgia Russo of LaFeltrinelli Internet Bookshop—beamed in from Italy due to a Covid-enforced absence—agreed that Instagram was the number one channel for influencers, but warned that it had now become very crowded. Instead, she was increasingly relying on TikTok, a channel that had seen exponential growth over the past two years, but which has plenty of room for growth. Her advice to booksellers was to build a unique presence by offering exclusive content and special deals, making followers feel loved—and then turning them into customers. “If it’s fun for you, other will find it fun too,” she said.
The second panel, with speakers from the Far East, Europe and Africa, looked at stock curation, presentation and customer service. In Slovenia, said Peter Kacmar of Ikar, bookshops took stock on consignment. The market was small and dominated by two major players, one physical, one online, but there were challenges because of a lack of consensus on how to classify titles by genre. Here as elsewhere the Covid crisis had resulted in a growth in book sales that mainly benefited online retailers.
Kenny Chan of Kinokuniya in Singapore looked at the challenge of building a coherent brand with shops in many different countries: currently 72 in Japan, 20 in the U.S., three each in Thailand and Taiwan, two each in Singapore and UAE and one each in Malaysia, Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar. “The history, geography and cultural of the locality play a major part in the store ambience and stock holding,” he said, while also being multi-cultural and true to the company’s Japanese roots. As stock is bought locally the quality and recruitment of staff was incredibly important, with training run out of Singapore, where they “brainwash managers in the Kinokuniya ethos.” The importance of training was also key for Remi Morgan of Laterna Ventures in Nigeria, where his company provided in-house training programs with exams to check their booksellers’ product knowledge and communication skills.
Sonia Draga of the eponymous chain of Polish bookstores said they tried to offer a point of difference for each branch. The shop in Warsaw, for instance, has a dog-watching service and “book emergency gift support” on social media at Christmas. The shop in Katowice offers board game book clubs and does charity events, the most recent was to support Ukraine, while the Chorzow branch has a Czech beer specialization and weekly author events and the shop in Gliwice puts out a daily book quotations on an a board, complete with customer illustrations.
The morning sessions ended with Jasmina Kanuric of the European and International Booksellers Federation looking at the results of the May 2021 EIBF report into the impact of Covid on bookselling in 2020, based on data from 25 countries round the world. Half of these countries had experienced an overall decline in book sales, with bookshops in 88% of them having closed at least once during the pandemic. All had seen some kind of government support for their business, while a third had benefited from government help specifically directed towards booksellers.
In the event of further lockdowns, the EIBF will lobby for bookshops to be classed as essential retailers, as they were in Italy, France and Spain in 2020, to allow them to remain open for business.
An earlier version of this article appeared in BookBrunch.