Interview: Booksellers NZ Chief Executive Dan Slevin on their centenary
We are excited to hear that Booksellers New Zealand will celebrate its centenary this year and we asked Chief Executive Dan Slevin some questions.
Tell us a little about Booksellers NZ.
Founded in 1921, Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand is the membership association for bookshops in New Zealand. We are a national not-for-profit trade organisation, and we work to help independently owned and chain book stores to grow and succeed.
We also run the national book tokens scheme which has been part of Kiwis reading life for nearly 70 years and the profits from that business go back into supporting bookshops.
How was Booksellers NZ formed?
As the book retailing sector got more mature in the early years of the 20th century senior figures felt that there were industry concerns and opportunities that would be better addressed as a group rather than individually. These are similar issues to the ones we face now – consistency of supply, trade terms from publishers – and some we don’t worry about so much these days like government censorship.
The first meeting was in Wellington on 6 July 1921 – 100 years ago today as I speak.
What will you do to celebrate the centenary?
We have been noting the centenary all year in various ways but the climax is our annual conference in Auckland on 21 and 22 August. We organise the annual Book Industry Awards dinner and that shindig is going to be the opportunity to raise a glass and cut the cake.
But we are also doing other promotions: the whole of July sees our first ever Tokens Amnesty. Normally book tokens have a two year life before they expire but for July our members will accept any token of any vintage in any condition.
Then on 9 October we have our annual Bookshop Day celebration where members put on special events, readings and parties to promote the “Buy Local” philosophy. This year equivalent associations in the UK and Australia are running their own Bookshop Days on the same day meaning Bookshop Day will last for two days.
What are you most proud of from Booksellers NZ achievements over the last 100 years?
We have achieved so much over 100 years but I think the thing to be most proud of is that bookselling is in good heart (not to mention good business) after years of being written off and told that we were a ‘sunset industry’. The GFC, Amazon, e-books, Covid, etc. have all been reasons to think book selling is dying but it simply hasn’t happened that way. We are getting enquiries from all over New Zealand from people wanting to open a local bookshop.
How do you see the future of bookselling in New Zealand?
Our members have always been a pretty adaptable and resilient bunch. They are good at responding to trends. What they are best at is putting the right book in the hands of the right person at the right time and no algorithm will ever be able to do that better than a flash and blood bookseller.
But technology will see some changes to the business and the trick will be taking that ‘in person’ experience and making it work in a digital environment. Good booksellers are ‘recommendation engines’ and we can see how important ‘influencers’ are in the online world.
But I also see the trend back to the physical, the in-person events, the local. Our best booksellers are embedded in their communities and respond organically to what those communities need. And we all need that kind of connection.
What are you doing to ensure that Booksellers NZ is here for another 100 years?
Our current goal is to help build some of the digital tools that would be too big for any individual member to build for themselves. We want to leverage the power of the network so that we can show our customers that collectively we have as big a footprint (and as big a commercial and cultural influence) as the big brands.
Working on succession planning is another important job that is coming up. Lots of booksellers will be reaching an age where they will be thinking of retiring and we want those businesses to continue under younger – and maybe even more diverse – ownership. There are lots of dedicated young booksellers working in bookshops but finding the capital to be able to buy a business of their own isn’t easy.
Why do you think bookstores are so important?
Books are the repositories of centuries of knowledge, wisdom, experience and imagination. A bookshop is a haven from the world and a chance to sample all of those things before deciding where you want to escape to next. And new books just smell so good, don’t they?
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I finally got to La Belle Sauvage, the first book in the new His Dark Materials Trilogy a couple of months ago. The first trilogy was deeply soothing for me at a tough time in my life and it was so good to be back in that world.
What’s next on the agenda for you after the centenary?
We have some big and exciting IT projects on the go that desperately need to be completed!