Bookstores in Italy, commercial establishments and cultural strongholds, 2

In this second issue of the survey on the book market, we will try to explore the map of bookstores businesses in Italy; as for the in-depth study on the situation of reading, we decided to limit the analysis to data on 2019. The numerous reports and insights produced on the pandemic period will be the specific object of the next issue.

In 2020, ALI – Associazione Librai Italiani (Italian Booksellers Association), in collaboration with Confcommercio, presented the results of the first edition of the annual observatory Nuove chiavi di lettura sul mondo delle librerie: numeri, prospettive e tendenze, edited by Format Research. The survey is an indispensable tool for understanding the bookselling sector in Italy, offering, for the first time, both an almost complete overview of the sector and a specific analysis of independent bookstores.

Considering companies with Ateco code 47610 (retail trade in new books) and 47791 (retail trade in second-hand books), there are 3,670 bookshops in Italy. Counting also the local units, i.e. the company branches that are not legal offices, the number rises to 4,359. As regards legal status, the vast majority (58%) are sole proprietorships, 25% are partnerships and 15% are limited companies. However, out of the total revenues of the sector (approximately 1.8 billion), joint stock companies account for 67.2%.

Another interesting fact concerns seniority: if 35.2% of bookshops were founded before 2000, 14% of them were founded after 2017 (172 of which in Southern Italy). Looking at the medium term, in 2012 there were 3,901 bookstores. The number had dropped to 3,505 in 2015, to see a slight increase in the following two years (3,679 in 2016; 3,670 in 2017).

The territorial distribution of businesses sees the South (South and Islands) ahead with 31% of the sector (1,138 bookstores); followed by the Center (26.5%, 971 bookstores), the Northwest (24.9%, 913) and the Northeast (17.7%, 648). Looking at the regions, the top three in terms of the number of bookstores are Lazio (12.7%), Lombardy (12%) and Piedmont (8.9%). There is, therefore, a greater concentration of bookstores in the two regions where the largest number of publishing houses are located.

As far as size is concerned, 50.5% of bookstores in Italy have just one employee, 42.8% have between 2 and 5 employees; while 4.1% and 2.6% respectively have between 6 and 9 employees and more than 9 units. These percentages correspond to a total of 11,185 units, distributed as follows: 39.2% in the Northwest, 23.5% in the Center, 19.9% in the Northeast and 17.4% in the South. It can be seen, therefore, that the greater concentration of businesses in the South and the Islands does not correspond to a greater number of employees in the sector. At the regional level, Lombardy (29%), Tuscany (11%) and Lazio (8.9%) occupy almost half of the total number of employees in the sector. Looking more closely at the distribution of employees, we can see that 42.7% work in companies with more than 9 employees (presumably corresponding to the large retail chains), while 34.2% work in bookstores with 2-5 employees. 36.1% of the companies have a percentage of female personnel greater than 75%.

As far as the type of bookstore is concerned, out of the 3,299 businesses identified with Ateco code 47610 (retail trade in new books), there are 2,412 independent bookstores, 17 in commercial networks (chains) and 870 with one or more local units. The latter two types group together around 1,565 local units. The territorial distribution varies considerably on the basis of the type of business: 35% of independent bookshops are located in southern Italy, 24.7% in central Italy and 23.4% in the northwest. For those with one or more local units, the gap is smaller: 28.6% in the South, 26.4% in the Centre and 25.8% in the Northwest. Of the chain companies, 64.7% have their registered offices in the Northwest.

The ALI report also presents an in-depth survey on the situation of independent bookstores, drawn up through interviews with a large sample of businesses (400 companies were interviewed, 360 of which declared themselves to be independent and 40 in franchising). These data are interesting because they offer a feedback of the perception of the Italian economic and social world by booksellers. In the last quarter of 2019, for example, 57.6% of those surveyed perceived a worsening of the country’s general economic situation (and only 2.4% an improvement); this corresponds to a worsening of the trend in economic activity that affected 41.5% of the bookstores surveyed, compared to 18.3% who instead witnessed an improvement compared to the last quarter of the previous year. Taking a longer period of time into consideration, the economic performance of bookstores in the last 24 months of the survey (2018-2019) is judged to have worsened compared to the previous two years by 61% of respondents, while it has improved for 21%. As for employment, this has remained unchanged in 73% of the establishments contacted and has worsened in 25% of them, configuring in fact a situation of the labor market in contraction.

Speaking of operating costs, these are reported as increasing by 41.7% of the businesses surveyed. The figure is particularly significant in that 57.4% of the costs in the year of survey are attributable to “incompressible expenses” (rents and utilities; specifically, management costs are distributed as follows in the sample taken into consideration: 29.5% rental costs; 27.9% utilities; 27.4% systems and services; 15.2% personnel). Another difficulty strongly pointed out by the booksellers interviewed is that of restocking: 62.8% state that they are unable to provide their clients with an up-to-date assortment. This figure should be correlated, in order to highlight any possible links, with the method of restocking (50.1% stated that they restock from distributors (Messaggerie, Mondadori, Giunti, etc.), 25.7% from wholesalers (Fastbook, Centro Libri, etc.), and only 5.3% from online distributors).

Another issue that is strongly felt is that of competition with e-commerce: 86.1% of the independent booksellers contacted see platforms such as Amazon as their main rivals. In particular, 66.1% of the sample cited the absence of market regulation and competition as an obstacle. However, this perception is not matched by equal activation to make one’s own business competitive on the web, if we consider that only 53% of bookshops stated that they have a website, a social page or a showcase on marketplaces: this percentage is growing in the North (63% in the North-East, 58% in the North-West), while it drops slightly in the Centre (49%) and in the South (46%). In these respects, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to an acceleration in the digitization of bookstores, as we will see in more detail in future releases.

Considerations regarding partial digitization could be related to the scarce training investment made by bookstores: only 13.7% had carried out training courses for their personnel in the two years prior to the survey and 76% of those interviewed did not feel they had any training needs to fill. Among those who, on the other hand, state the need for more training, 18.2% would like it to focus on book market issues and 17.3% on digital skills. At the root of the lack of training, on the other hand, there are also other reasons: among those bookstores that have carried out training courses, 32.7% have encountered difficulties, attributable mostly to the high cost of training and reduced availability of time. The need for training has been repeatedly called for by professionals in the field [see, for example: R. Pinto, Il mestiere di libraio, in R. Montroni, Vendere l’anima. Il mestiere del libraio, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2010], but the Italian panorama still seems rather limited in this sense.

What emerges from the survey is certainly how the figure of the bookseller is perceived as the true strong point of independent bookstores: 60.5% of those interviewed agreed on this aspect, highlighting the fundamental role of the bookseller in advising clients and spreading culture (introducing consumers to “the book they didn’t know they were looking for”). Among those who embrace this vision, 95.5% say they are convinced that this also translates into economic advantage. It is significant, in relation to the cultural role claimed by the majority of booksellers, that the distribution of sales is, on average, in favor of lesser-known titles (54.4%) compared to new titles (45.6%).

In relation to this profile of the bookseller as both a commercial and cultural operator, it is worth remembering that of the total number of customers in the year of the survey, 66.9% were historic, and therefore loyal, customers. Looking at the role of bookstores in the social context, it should be pointed out that 61.8% of bookstores collaborate with schools and/or cultural associations. This percentage is considerably higher than that of those who have joined associations that give recognition to independent bookstores (34.5%), or networks of independent bookstores (28.8%). This data can reasonably lead us to deduce that interaction with the social context of close relevance is considered a priority. In order to comment on this data, it would be interesting to see what percentage of the data is attributable to children’s bookstores, for which interaction with schools might be more imperative. It should be noted, however, that, of those who did not collaborate with schools or associations, 70.3% intend to do so in the future.

The last element to consider, both in terms of economic and cultural activity, is the organization of events or participation in events organized by third parties. The average number of events organized in bookshops in the two-year period preceding the survey is around 17 at national level, with a higher vitality in the South (21) and a lower one in the North (13 North-West and 14 North-East); in the same period, participation in third-party events is around 28. This figure also shows a clear peak in the South (43), compared to which the survey data reveals an overall increase in the presence and activism of independent bookstores.

Independent bookstores are defined here as companies without local units and not belonging to corporate groups. For a possible definition of independent bookshops, see the meaning given to the term by the Italian Union of Booksellers and Stationers.

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