Books Are My Bag is a national campaign run by The Booksellers Association to promote bookshops in the UK.
It is centred around three main events:
- Bookshop Day 2017 (Sat 7th Oct)
- Saturday Sanctuary (Nov 25th) and
- The BAMB Reader Awards.
BAMB is now in its fifth year, and any campaign that celebrates the value and vital role of physical bookshops in this online age must surely be a good thing.
This year, as usual, for Bookshop Day, I put the bunting up, sold the bags, wore the t-shirt (bloody hell, what size WAS that T-Shirt?) and posed for the inevitable smiley tote-bag-on-shoulder photos, but something didn’t seem to be quite right.
For once, my smile was a little bit on the strained side.
It seems that the relationship between my shop and BAMB, at five-years old, is not quite what it used to be.
Has the magic worn off?
Am I just going through the motions?
Perhaps it’s time for a bit of retail relationship therapy.
Pull up a chair, pop me on the couch and I’ll tell you what’s on my mind:
Yes, we had fun:
We have hosted some very memorable BAMB events at my shop.
We have enjoyed well-attended readings by a variety of authors, a Children’s Book illustrator sketching our customers and even a Celebrity on the till.
The latter turned out to be a mixed blessing as on the whole, no-one seemed to recognise him.
As it turned out, he was useless on the till, and I felt the need to keep explaining to customers who he was and why he was there, to prevent anyone from running off and giving my shop a one-star review on Facebook due to “untrained staff.”
One lady, after being informed of his identity, decided that he must have
fallen on hard times.
When I explained he was with us voluntarily, she interpreted this as
getting himself back into the workplace.
So yes, BAMB has provided us with a lot of fun.
Could we have done any of the above without BAMB? Quite possibly.
We have author events all year round, without all the BAMB banners and balloons.
The main difference with BAMB is that it is a cross-industry event. All bookshops host events at the same time under the same banner.
This is where I start to wonder:
I consider myself to be quite an independent person, as I’m sure do most Indie Bookshops managers.
Likewise, with my shop, I like to offer a unique experience to customers:
- unique selection
- unique décor
- unique staff (I certainly have those!)
Well you get the idea.
As much as I feel a warm glow towards my fellow Indie bookshops, do I really want to display exactly the same publicity material as each and every one of them?
Do I want my shop, even if just for one day, to give the impression it might be just one branch of a bigger Books Are My Bag chain?
This isn’t helped by BAMB ringing up the shop (with the slight air of Head Office) to ask me what events we are putting on.
We have big bookshops that can do homogenisation and mass branding perfectly adequately.
I want to provide something different. I am wary of anything that causes Indie Bookshops to become a bit same-y.
The indistinguishability of Indies has been on my mind a bit recently anyway.
As well as being able to view up-to-the-minute-charts of Indie Bookshop Bestsellers, thanks to a new initiative from Above The Treeline, Indie Bookshops can now access each other’s sales data too if they wish.
I am in two minds about this development.
On the one hand, it is intriguing to see which titles other bookshops are selling, plus I may pick up on one or two titles my shop is missing.
On the other hand, I am wary of anything that pulls our shops nearer together.
It is the differences in Indie Bookshops that makes them worthwhile and stock selection is a huge part of this.
That’s why an Indie Bookshop Crawl is so much fun, compared to say a Waterstones Bookshop crawl, which I’ve never heard of anyone doing, apart from authors, usually under promotional instruction from their publishers.
So my instinct is often to exist in a bubble and shy away from anything that merges my shop with others in any way.
This puts me slightly at odds with Books Are My Bag in its current form.
A further problem with BAMB (for Indies anyway) is that Waterstones take part in it too. They are Booksellers Association members after all.
This means that an Indie bookshop located in a small town or city will end up running exactly the same promotion as their Bookshop Chain neighbour, which is not ideal at all.
The chance to sell exclusive BAMB bags and goodies is undone somewhat if larger bookshops are doing the same thing nearby. The “exclusivity” starts to become a bit meaningless.
I know of a shop which waited until the Saturday to sell their BAMB Tote Bags one year, only to find out that Waterstones had been selling them in the same town since the Wednesday.
(It’s not unusual for Waterstones to break embargoes btw. I wrote a whole blogpost about it).
To me, BAMB lacks the Indies Only appeal of Independent Bookshop Week, which is a BAMB offshoot.
It gives off a
Bookshops Large And Small Are All One Big Happy Family
vibe which doesn’t sit comfortably with me.
Other shops might be more accommodating!
One of the key selling points of BAMB is the provision of limited edition Tote Bags to all participating shops.
There is a different design each year: the current one is by Orla Kiely.
The design reminds me of one of those fashion shops I sometimes stumble upon, where I can’t tell if the owner is being deliberately retro or just hasn’t changed the signage since 1973.
The bags are sold to us as limited although in fact, last year’s bag designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith is still available, as is the Tracey Emin design from a previous year.
We’re talking “limited” as in those “limited” once-in-a-lifetime hand-numbered porcelain “family heirlooms” you can buy for 199 pounds from magazines. (Pay in instalments.)
The BAMB bags are not reprinted (or re-stitched) and I guess it is this that makes them limited. However supply does sometimes outstrip demand.
The Tote Bags are nicely designed but:
- They are very expensive. The Coraline Bickford-Smith design had a retail price of about 15.00 pounds (+VAT). We often have to reduce ours in order to sell them.
- The discount offered to Booksellers on these tote bags is pretty standard so essentially the Bookseller’s Association is using Bookshop Day to sell some stuff to us. OK. This is fine. We know where we stand. Unfortunately the public perception is often that the bags are free. There is never any mention of price in the Twitter pre-publicity, a lot of which is posted by people, sorry Social Media Key Influencers, who have been sent the bags for free in the first place.
- There is only one design. I’d prefer it if booksellers could design their own BAMB bag or be allowed to adapt an existing design. There would then be a “collect them all” dimension to the day, which would encourage shoppers to go to more than one bookshop. Photos on Twitter wouldn’t just consist of the same bag design over and over again either.
- As it stands, this Tote Bag feels like more of a promotional tool for Orla Kiely, than it does for my particular shop.
Five years ago, the idea of stocking a Tote Bag in my shop was quite novel and appealing: there weren’t many of them around.
Since the charge for plastic carrier bags was introduced in October 2015, Canvas Tote Bags have become increasingly available.
Most bookshops also stock their own Tote Bags now too, which tend to be better priced than the BAMB bags.
So the BAMB bag is less of a draw than it was 5 years ago. We sold a lot in Year One but have struggled to sell all the other bags in any considerable number.
From a green angle too, it is better to re-use existing canvas tote bags too than to keep buying new ones. This may be coming into play slightly too.
The Books Are My Bag slogan and original campaign was created and conceived by M & C Saatchi. Lord Maurice Saatchi is a patron of Books Are My Bag.
Or as the BAMB website puts it:
Lord Maurice Saatchi is Patron of the BOOKS ARE MY BAG campaign. His book; Brutal Simplicity of Thought: How it Changed the World, is published by Ebury Press, priced £7.00 (ISBN 9780091957025).
The original bag/promotion was praised for its simplicity.
The design and the colour (Guantanamo Bay Orange) weren’t particularly my cup of tea, but there was no denying it was simple and the bags did seem to spark the public imagination in Year One.
I have encountered an occasional problem with the phrase itself (Books Are My Bag) however.
A few of our younger customers are not familiar with the idea of something being “my bag.”
It is not a phrase in current usage particularly, and seems to be something left over from the hippie era.
Maybe we should count ourselves lucky not to have bags reading:
- Books Are Far Out Man.
- Are You Gonna Be There At The Read-In?
- All We Are Saying Is Give Books A Chance or
- Hey Beautiful People: Literature is Where It’s At My Friend.
(Actually, I’m growing to like some of these!)
I have heard younger people saying something along the lines of:
“I don’t understand it. It says Books Are My Bag but it’s on a bag. So surely the bag is my bag. And a book is a book.
When you explain what it means for something to be “my bag”, they say:
That’s confusing, cos it’s also on a bag.
Yes, books are my satchel.
Do people who work outside the Book Trade have any idea what Books Are My Bag is or represents, even after 5 years?
As an experiment, I asked 20 random customers (so in fact actual book buyers) if they had heard of Books Are My Bag.
This was while my Books Are My Bag posters/bunting was on display in the shop.
I came up with a blank 19 times.
The one who got it right was an ex-bookseller.
One person said he had heard of “Boil in a Bag.”
According to the Midas PR (Books Are My Bag are a client):
Midas PR has been working on the Books are my Bag campaign since its inception, leading on the consumer launch from 2014 onwards. The agency achieved some brilliant results, including spontaneous awareness among 60 per cent of bookshop customers.
Since these words were written, there seems to have been a severe outbreak of spontaneous forgetfulness, particularly in these parts.
The amount of independent publicity afforded to BAMB seems to diminish too with each year:
The 7 articles on the BAMB website in the Press section (as I write) are all from either 2013 or 2014. One from The Daily Telegraph is just a dead link.
So the impression given on BAMB’s own website is that the BAMB campaign ceased to get wider press three years ago.
We once stocked the BAMB design on a Book Token card. Very few customers ever chose it as a design when buying a book token. The BAMB logo and design did not seem to have any appeal when alternatives were available.
The BAMB website is full of pictures of celebrity “BAMBassadors” all clutching their book bags.
Is this a stunning publicity coup or does it tell us that each of these celebrities had a couple of seconds to spare for a bookshop?
Are they BAMBassadoring the rest of the time?
(I bet half of them buy their books from BAMBazon. Bunch of BAMBateurs!!)
Has anyone seen a celebrity wearing a BAMB other than for a BAMB photo shoot?
All the celebrities are pictured with the original bag, which I expect is to do with Image Power or something, but that also gives the impression that all the celebrity publicity was achieved in the first year.
Plus I’d like a bag not worn by Richard Osman. In fact not being worn by Richard Osman is one of the the first things I look for in a bag. That might just be me.
Preaching to the converted:
When people notice BAMB display material in my shop, I usually find myself having to explain what BAMB represents (ie that is all about getting people into bookshops).
The people I explain this to though are already in a bookshop so they really don’t need telling about the value of bookshops.
Likewise, the BAMB leaflets and bookmarks which preach the BAMB gospel, having been sent to bookshops, tend to be read by people who are already in a bookshop.
BAMB also tweet extensively on the theme of books to tie in with Bookshop Day too, but how far is the reach with these tweets?
Do they ever get beyond an inner circle of Bookshop Workers, Book Bloggers and Book Enthusiasts?
Is the BAMB message reaching the right people, both online and in shops themselves, or is it just preaching to the converted?
Saturday Sanctuary is the BAMB answer to Black Friday. Previously known as Civilised Saturday, this year it falls on November 25th. It’s aim is:
to promote the bookshop as an oasis of calm…
The problem with this idea is that I don’t want my bookshop to be an oasis of calm on November 25th.
There is nothing more annoying than when customers come into a bookshop near Christmas and tell you how “calm” your shop is, compared to all the other shops.
I don’t want an oasis of calm. I want a barbaric frenzy of retail mayhem. I want my staff to be rushed off their feet and pushed to their physical limit.
I want blisters, bewilderment, nervous exhaustion and a till fit to bursting with serious cashola.
Saturday Sanctuary gives you a chance to promote your shop as the place to come for some bibliotherapy; a pampering for the book-lover – you can get in a massage expert, put on prosseco and cake, offer manicures, bibliotherapy sessions and treats galore.
November 25th should be one of the busiest days of the year. I don’t want to turn my shop into a sodding gong healing workshop.
“Footfall is increased”
Somebody will inevitably point me towards some figures saying how footfall increases in bookshops on BAMB Bookshop day.
Well, yes, but we are talking about the first Saturday in October here.
New books are arriving all the time (it is the first Saturday after Super Thursday), pay day has just been, and Christmas is on the horizon.
Footfall increases anyway on this day.
How about BAMB helping us out on a miserable Saturday in February?
“It’s better than nothing”
(I’m trying to anticipate counter-arguments here. )
Well is it? As booksellers we all pay a yearly fee toward the Booksellers Association. We also sell Book Tokens which raises money on their behalf. It is bookshops that fund the BA and by extension BAMB.
BAMB also receives a lot of generous donations and free time from many talented organisations and individuals.
It is only right that the Booksellers Association use all this money and aid to work in our interests as effectively as possible. We the booksellers have a stake in their business.
So what they do on our behalf should be a hell of a lot better than nothing. Something, in fact!
Are we getting our full value from BAMB? I’m not so sure.
After 5 years, is it time to quietly retire BAMB and have a re-think?
Well, I feel better for getting that lot off my chest.
Maybe I just want things to go back to how they were 5 years ago, when it was all fresh and exciting.
Maybe I feel we are treading water a bit in our relationship.
Maybe I resent the fact that when I took you to the cinema, you wore a pair of decrepit sandals and proceeded to pick dried skin off your feet for the entire film. I’ve had a problem with popcorn ever since. (No wait, that was a real relationship.)
BAMB doesn’t make me or my shop feel very unique or special. Perhaps a trial separation between my shop and Books Are My Bag is inevitable.
My shop manages fine without it and I should probably count my lucky stars that this is the case.
I should just give BAMB the old “It’s not you it’s me speech” and be on my way.
Unless of course anyone wants to stick up for BAMB, state the opposing case and try to re-ignite those flickering embers of a formerly healthy marriage.
In which case, comments always welcome.