Over this past weekend in Prague, the European & International Book Federation hosted its inaugural RISE bookselling conference. The event drew some 250 delegates, representing booksellers from nearly two dozen countries for several days of panel discussions, networking and tours around the city..

Sponsors for the event included Ingram, Gardners, BATCH, and Edelweiss. The new conference is an opportunity for booksellers from around the world to meet, to inspire and be inspired, and to contribute to creating a resilient, sustainable bookselling sector – something that the RISE organization has been created to do.

The EIBF, which represents national booksellers’ associations in the European Union and beyond, is supported by the European Commission. “Booksellers," said Georg Haeusler, director of culture, creativity and sport at the EC, beamed in by video, “are one of our privileged partners."

Keynote speaker Malin Persso Giolito, author of the internationally bestselling Quicksand (Other Press) and now a Netflix series (“the only time my children took me seriously”), in the first keynote, wondered “what do the young Europeans of today have in common apart from, perhaps, TikTok?” She continued: “This room represents a small but decisive slice of European cultural life," and suggesting that, together, we can teach our children how to travel the world through the magic of the written word.

Sustainability in the spotlight

The first breakout sessions saw the now obligatory topic of green bookselling high on the agenda, with a panel fielding speakers Amber Harrison of the U.K.'s Folde Bookshop, Minna Kokka from chain bookseller Suomalainen Kirjakauppa in Finland and Mathijs Suidman from Centraal Boekhuis in the Netherlands, and chaired by Meryl Halls from the U.K.’s BA. Her overview of recent BA green initiatives included the Sustainable Booksellers Action Group, which has recently put aside £100,000 to fund bookseller sustainability projects, as well as the new U.K. cross-trade initiative, the Sustainability Industry Forum.

Folde is a bookshop that specializes in books on nature and nature writing and as such, Harrison has always seen sustainability as a core competency. They have already undertaken all the obvious things such as looking at renewable energy, recycled and recyclable packaging, a carbon neutral telecoms provider and a bank providing recycled bank cards.

Centraal Boekhuis, for 150 years the sole distributor in the Netherlands, was originally set up by Dutch publishers to improve economies of scale, although an additional benefit has proved to be a lower carbon footprint. The real challenge in achieving a more sustainable industry, felt Suidman, was the problem of overstocks, with offset print technology seemingly encouraging publishers to overprint. While short run printing and POD is now part of the landscape, and can be employed very successfully, it is still resisted by some, including authors who may have a contract that prevents the use of these technologies. The perception is that the quality is inferior, but the landscape is changing fast and more education and discussion around what can be done using POD is required. Although the costs of printing offset vs POD may not seem comparable, adding in the environmental cost of overprinting can change that equation.

Kokka–whose bookselling group includes a printer, a logistics center and a publisher–agreed. Although the chain has almost no returns, and 90% of all paper is recycled in Finland, she argued that the problems of overprinting and overstocks now needed to be seriously addressed. The problem may be more urgent than that of returns particularly as, reported Suidman, less than a third of books returned to stock in the Centraal Boekhuis went on to be resold: the panel agreed that ideally returns should be dealt with at a local level.

Representation matters

In the second breakout sessions, moderated by Daniel Martin Brennan of EIBF, the question of how to create a diverse and inclusive bookshop saw two impassioned speakers, Mili Hernández of Libreria Berkana in Madrid and Mairi Oliver of Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh, make a number of suggestions.

Berkana was the first gay bookshop in Spain, opened in 1993 at a time when no Spanish LGBTQ+ books were actually published and many LGBTQ+ people in Spain were not open about their sexual orientation. The bookshops Oscar Wilde in New York and Gay’s the Word in London “saved my life”, said Hernández, and she’d opened Berkana in homage to them. In the beginning “we felt very, very lonely”, she continued, but they were running a bookshop for a community that needed a safe space, and where people came not just to buy a book but to ask for help. It’s only in the last few years that they have been able to concentrate just on selling books, rather than supplying “the extras that aren’t books."

Lighthouse is a radical bookshop supplying literature to many different groups. “Books can and should be part of changing the world…part of it just the joy of seeing yourself on the shelf”, said Oliver, suggesting that in order to do this properly, bookshops needed to hire diversely as well as stock diversely: “We’re being a little disrupter in a wide, able bodied world."

Bookshops that want to be more inclusive should actively signal their intentions as well as ask customers what they want – though “if you ask people to tell you what you need to do, you must listen. We all have blind spots. Are we all trying hard enough? It’s not necessarily hard to reach these populations, they are just easy to ignore”, said Oliver. “A quarter of the U.K. population is disabled in some way – it’s a huge audience and we must engage so they feel welcomed. It’s just a resilience plan for the future.”

Suggestions for encouraging a more diverse industry included publishers putting money into things such as supporting British Sign Language interpreters and hiring more accessible venues for events, while shops should do an audit to see if, for example, all their science books are written by men, or whether they have a disabled author’s book on display in the window.

The session finished with a discussion on whether books for a diverse audience should be stocked together, or integrated into other, more general sections. Ideally bookshops need to experiment to see where they sell best, said the panelists; consumers usually expect to see LGBT or books on disability, both genres in their own right, shelved separately, although having more popular titles in both specialist and general sections could be the answer.

The second keynote author of the day, Lawrence Schimel, spoke movingly on the subject of inclusion. Having written over 130 books for children, in 2020 he published two titles for young children about families with same-sex couples—though that was very much not the primary plot point. The reaction from some quarters was violent: the books were outlawed in Hungary, the Russian NGO that published them was closed down and the author was the target of a huge social media hate campaign. But the book trade fought back in an extraordinary international campaign of support, with bookshops and libraries taking a leading role. As a result, the books have now been published all over the world, in languages such as Basque, Welsh, Zulu and Xhosa, and customer feedback has been incredibly positive.

The day ended with a virtuoso performance from author, comedian, broadcaster and bibliomaniac Robin Ince delivering a love letter to indie booksellers and to reading. Books are “weapons of empathy”, that “so often give us permission to be who we really are”, he said, while bookshops “spread love, and fill the world with kindness and understanding” – and who in the audience would disagree with that?

Jo Henry is managing director of the U.K. newsletter BookBrunch.