London SYP Speaker Meeting: "What do West Ham, toilet roll and giant salmon have in common?"

Posted on July 18, 2008 in Uncategorized

On a stifling summer evening such as the last day in June, many exhausted commuters are planning sizzling summer getaways and deciding which books to sink their teeth into whilst escaping from it all. It is crucial for these poor tired holiday makers to find the book that will prove to be the essential balm to sooth the withered soul… and where to buy that book from?

 On a night such as this young publishers congregated at Foyles Bookshop to consider not only this, but to participate in a riveting debate about the current issues regarding sales in book publishing. After soothing our own withered souls with a delightful array of refreshments, Ragna Heidweiller introduced the panel of expert speakers. Lucy Beaumont is the key account executive at Random House. She came from a book wholesaler background before starting work at Random House in 2004. The accounts currently managed by Lucy are Amazon, Borders, Waterstones.com, Blackwell’s and WH Smith Online. Lucy provided a helpful overview regarding the position of high street, online and supermarket booksellers. Andrew Hayward is the sales and marketing director at Constable and Robinson. He was London representative for most of thirteen years at Penguin. Andrew gave an enlightening account of sales strategies from the perspective of an independent publisher. Finally Vivian Archer gave her perspective on sales within the book trade. As a bookseller and event organiser who has been working for the independent Newham Bookshop for 21 years, Vivian had a whole host of pearls of wisdom to bestow. Vivian has also been on the panel of judges for the Penguin/Decibel Prize for the last two years.

Lucy commenced the discussion by drawing on the idea of the market as a continually shifting force. ‘In recent years there has been a major shift from the high street to online. Just think of the effect that broadband has had. It has doubled the position of the Internet since 2004. Amazon are the daddies of the online movement… as they are only too aware!’ mused Lucy. Amazon has recently become caught up in negotiations with Hachette over levels of discounts as it had done in January with Bloomsbury. Amazon, who have demonstrated that they really do dominate the market, removed key front and backlist titles during these disputes. Amazon and its rival, Play.com, publicise and market new titles to the maximum to boost sales. Pre-ordering has become Amazon’s secret weapon to increase revenue. Lucy stated: ‘Hardback titles of well established authors act like magic when included in Amazon’s pre-ordering extravanganza’. Extracts and author interviews add value to online content. Online bookstores such as Amazon have a hold over consumers who do not have the time and energy to battle through the high street looking for a stonking good read. The high streets have had to fight hard to keep up with the online phenomenon. Lucy added: ‘Waterstones extended their website in September 2006 and WH Smith renovated their website at Christmas last year. Yet with or without state-of-the-art websites, the high street is an important ally to publishers.’ It seems that people are prepared to pay that little bit more for a personal recommendation of staff in a shop. Lucy pointed out that: ‘With purchasing a book online you cannot hold it in your hands. You cannot beat the physicality of holding a book.’ Finally, the supermarket share in the book market has shot up from 8% in 2004 to 14% now. ‘It is crucial if you work in sales to keep on top of different channels and find the right thing for your title.’ Lucy concluded.
 
Andrew Hayward thinks the best sales tool that he has ever come across was ‘definitely, absolutely the free quiz-question bog roll that came with the QI book.’ He mentions the two things sales reps must remember. First the golden thread that is the relationship between the rep and the buyer. Second is the increasing move to all things online, which Lucy went into detail about. Andrew advocated the Net Book Agreement abolishment because it encouraged motivation. He stated: ‘I love 3 for 2 in Waterstones and I think it really works. However, Waterstones have done too much selling for a price which devalues a book. Whatever happens in retail the book will hold up.’ Andrew used the example of the book Winter in Madrid: ‘This was a fantastic book with a fantastic jacket. It did very well initially but sales began to dip as time passed…but Hodder went back in and bought more space in the chains and sales increased once again.’ Andrew pointed out that Borders suffer because they do not see all of their reps and do not have time to find out what is on offer. He also posited the theory that Amazon’s sales have reached a plateau, which is why they’ve gone after Hachette in the way that they have. Apparently knowing your market is what really makes a book sell well. Andrew used the example of the Domesday Book of Giant Salmon that had a terrific response despite being priced at £50 on Amazon. Andrew laughed: ‘This book sold impeccably well, particularly through the specialist websites. Fisherman are more bizarre than football supporters and are willing to splash out in order to ogle gigantic fish.’
 
Vivian, who according to Andrew, can sell books on West Ham like nobody else, remembers a long time ago when all booksellers were on the same par. However the end of the Net Book Agreement was very significant and everything changed for the ‘Indies’. Now it is service and knowledge that give independents the edge. Vivian stated, ‘I always buy from reps not wholesalers. That way you can get author event information and POS.’ She implies that the golden thread is all important but more so is the will to sell those books. Vivian heavily emphasised: ‘If you open the door of the shop and expect people to come in then you are naïve. You must know your market, especially,’ she laughed, ‘when you’re selling one of those £50 Salmon books.’ If there is one thing Vivian knows it is that at Newham Bookshop, anything on football sells because it is near West Ham football ground. She tries to make sure that stock is very different to the chains, focusing on local history, politics and sport. Newham also has a diverse community so African and Asian titles are sold in abundance. Vivian stressed: ‘This is so important. Some chains have minimised or removed these sections. Customers are sensitive as to how their booksellers perceive their reading habits. They want advice, more than just retail.’ It seems that now publishers are slowly waking up to the fact that if they don’t look after the ‘indies’, then they will lose out. Vivian finished by saying: ‘work with us, trust us, talk to us and together we can sell an awful lot of books!’