Independent booksellers in Italy: relaunch proposals and long-term trends, 4

In this fourth episode of our survey on the book market, we will try to present the opinions of some independent booksellers, from the North to the South of the peninsula.

In order to investigate the issues that have emerged from the reports and surveys we have referred to in previous issues, we have decided to ask a few questions to a select group of independent booksellers, from the North to the South of Italy. To this end, we formulated a sufficiently broad questionnaire, covering both current issues and long-term dynamics. Although the response rate did not allow for a complete numerical processing of the data, we decided to present the answers we received anyway, in order to suggest some possible lines of research.

Regarding the changes that have occurred in recent years, the booksellers consulted basically agree in identifying the success of the Internet (and, consequently, of e-commerce) as the main novelty, which has upset the commercial dynamics, without, however, distorting the cultural role of the bookstore. Fabio Masi, publisher and bookseller of L’ultima spiaggia (Ventotene), gives a symptomatic answer: “No substantial changes, bookshops continue to play the role of a garrison, a square, a place of spontaneous aggregation or determined by particular events such as book presentations. The only novelty is represented by the Internet and the possibility of enlarging “the square” and multiplying the ways and places where booksellers and readers can meet”.

Some, like Cristina Pavone (Libreria Coreander in Rome) and Alessandra Salvagno (Libreria editrice Il Leggio in Chioggia), perceived a change in the number of users, who are now mainly women and children. This does not affect the feeling that the independent bookstore remains a community reference point, as confirmed by many. Nicoletta Maldini (Libreria Trame in Bologna) describes her “public”, and not a clientele, as “very motivated and not too interested in discounts, but rather in the quality and variety of the content offered”. This is confirmed by the testimony of Maria Caldarone (Libreria Belgravia in Turin), who also tells of initiatives implemented to strengthen this role: “We are increasingly becoming a crossroads, a small neighborhood community. We have included corners for free book exchanges inside and outside the store and a service for collecting used school books that are donated: the economic crisis has no longer allowed entire segments of the population to buy the books they want, so we have gone towards the needs of those who could not afford to buy them”.

The attitude of independent booksellers to keep together the cultural and commercial nature of their activity is well exemplified by the way they choose the titles to display and keep in their catalog. These take into account, according to all of the professionals interviewed, both the saleability and the market trends, as well as the “customers’ requests for more in-depth information” and the “human experience” of the individual bookseller, as Caldarone (Belgravia) points out. To this must be added, according to Masi (L’ultima spiaggia), an attention to the “valorization of the history and nature of the territory where the bookstore operates”, and to the “need to create a new generation of readers”.

With regard to the role played in the social context by independent bookstores, all the witnesses agreed in identifying this aspect as one of the most vital. Carlo Borgogno (Libreria Milton in Alba) describes the bookshops as a “space for social exchange, a place for gathering, sharing and letting off steam”. He emphasized, among other things, how in recent years he has been able to observe an increase in “requests for aggregation, sociality, moments of entertainment”, and therefore in the energy needed to satisfy them, and he hoped for coordination “at a central level in the individual municipalities” in order to strengthen the response. Among the activities that, along with book presentations, are identified as central to fulfilling this role are reading circles. In this regard, Pavone (Coreander) affirms: “With a destroyed social structure, the difficulty in creating human relationships, the reading circle is a mechanism that works, if it is well thought out”. The case of Masi (L’ultima spiaggia) is particular, who has “accompanied the work of the bookshop with that of the publisher, who prints only and exclusively books regarding the territory, with the aim of contributing to the safeguarding and valorization of memory”.

Maldini (Trame) points out that the pandemic emergency also played a role in the reconsideration of the value of bookstores: “At the Italian level, the active reaction to the pandemic, with home deliveries in particular, has given breath and an excellent narrative to a suffering category”. According to Maldini, this has enabled many companies to hold their own.

With regard to the consequences triggered by the pandemic, all the booksellers interviewed recalled that they took action in various ways, in particular through home deliveries and membership of distribution platforms such as Bookdealer and Libri da asporto (Takeaway Books). This has allowed them to gain recognition in terms of visibility. Even Masi (L’ultima spiaggia) agrees in saying that he has observed “a new and greater attention to proximity bookstores on the part of readers”, as well as “a different willingness on the part of the main market players to support the work of booksellers, as some distributors have done, with the possibility of delivering the requested book directly to the reader’s home”.

However, Caldarone (Belgravia) points out that, in his own experience, “during the pandemic, customers bought more books, but often only from authors known to the general public, while small publishing houses and emerging authors did not find much space”. More systemic is the criticism advanced by Pavone (Coreander), who, while noting that delivery has certainly been increased by the pandemic context, points out the risk that this could create “a cultural desert in society”. Among other things, she reiterated how, beyond the contingencies, the structural problem of the book world in Italy is a lack of readers: “A thousand realities are fighting over a few million readers”.

Among the most negative consequences of the emergency, the drastic reduction of book presentations in presence is recalled by almost all the booksellers reached. This situation, which online events could only partially remedy, and which, as Borgogno (Milton) points out, is anything but over: “Even today, although we have resumed book presentations, it is not possible for us, given the reduced space of our store, to safely host events, as we did in the pre-pandemic era. This is perceived as an economic damage, but also, according to Salvagno (Il Leggio), as an impoverishment of the “human contact with the client”.

Some interesting responses also came in regarding the structural difficulties of the book trade and possible solutions. As we will see in the sixth issue of our in-depth analysis, returns are still one of the main problems, but this is part of a more general distribution problem. Borgogno’s (Milton) position is radical: “Distribution eats up most of the profit that booksellers and publishers should share, without providing a service with added value to either party. […] Platforms like Librostore, which put publishers and booksellers in direct contact, are the future”. But the problems related to distribution are not limited to costs and discounts; as Caldarone (Belgravia) points out, there is also a problem of timing and difficulty in finding texts. In this regard, Pavone (Coreander) also identifies the possibility of “offering the completeness of the editorial offer” as the “new frontier” facing booksellers, highlighting in particular the difficulty of finding texts in foreign languages, for which there is a lack of direct distributors, mainly independent bookstores.

March 2020 saw the entry into force of the new National Action Plan for the promotion of reading (Law no. 15 of February 13, 2020) which, among other things, incorporated the requests regarding the reduction of the maximum applicable discount, now set at 5%, updating the Levi Law (Law no. 128 of July 27, 2011). Asked about possible further initiatives to be undertaken, the booksellers presented various perspectives, mostly in a structural rather than emergency sense. Caldarone (Belgravia) identified the cover price of books as the main problem, also considering the average economic condition of Italian families. On this topic, the recent intervention by Oliviero Pesce is interesting, as an afterword to the publication of the article by J. M. Keynes, I libri costano troppo? (Laterza, Rome-Bari 2018).

Pavone (Coreander) put forward the idea of a stable and direct support to the neighborhood activities consolidated on the territory; always on a territorial discourse proposes to work Borgogno (Milton), who invokes a greater attention from the municipalities to “make available for free spaces open to the citizenship where you can meet authors, artists, musicians, this especially for those bookstores, cultural associations and the like that do not have suitable spaces (also in light of the reduction of post-pandemic capacities).” The possibility of building a cultural network that involves the various protagonists emerges several times in the answers to the questionnaire. As Maldini (Trame) points out: “The whole chain should work through synergies. Schools, libraries, museums, theaters, cinemas… consumers of culture are greedy and open to everything”.

Finally, Masi’s proposal (L’ultima spiaggia) is very articulate: “Personally, I think that the 18app should be rethought. Starting from the assumption that it is difficult to become a reader at the age of majority as if by magic, I imagine support for reading that begins in the first years of life, six years for example, and that accompanies the reader up to eighteen with a gradually decreasing book bonus”. Also linked to this is the idea of launching, on the model of the French ADELC – Association pour le développement de la librairie de création, “an Italian association that has the same objectives”, which could, among other things, play the role of “guarantor” in the sense of a “greater willingness on the part of publishers and/or distributors to support the new bookstores, especially in terms of margins”.

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