The Art of Bookselling

Posted on September 29, 2010 in Uncategorized



The SYP’s bookselling speaker meeting was held at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. The evening played host to a discussion on the history and development of the bookselling industry. The two speakers both emphasised the need to preserve the traditional bookshop buying experience in a bid to rival the digital advances which are fast becoming a dominant force in the industry. Reading books is a truly wonderful experience and the ability to buy and sell them is slowly becoming a long lost art.

The first speaker of the evening was Simon Black, who started his bookselling career back in 1991 as a bookseller at Heffers in Cambridge. Simon was keen to talk about digital innovations and the impact that they are having on the publishing and bookselling trade.  He stressed that the bookselling industry is going through some major changes and, to be truthful, no one really knows what the future holds.

Simon travelled back to the start of his career and mapped out a few key changes which have resulted in the bookselling situation we now see today. It seems it all started with the abolishment of the Net Book Agreement. The industry has been deeply impacted by the abolishment of this fixed price agreement, to the extent that bookshops aren’t seen as the powerhouses they used to be. Their market shares were lost to online sales and other retailers who could afford to sell books at discounted prices. So when Simon moved to Waterstones to become a manger it was here that the pressure fell on him to cope with the backlash caused by the cut prices offered by other retailers. The pricing of a book had evolved, it had become competitive, dynamic – it was now a promotional weapon. Books were brands and discounting titles enabled the build-up of a campaign, which grew in force as the pricing agreement fell.

Another factor that changed the bookselling trade was location. As shops like Ottakers moved away from their rural locations and into towns, they needed to take on books which were reflective of their new readers. Such movements lead to the birth of a new strategy – specialisation in bookshops. Now individual shops would buy their books over an intranet buying system and would choose their specialist subject. This was a move away from centralisation, so that shops would now determine their stock and customer base. With this came the introduction of intranet microsites where you would use the expertise of each shop to bring about a group benefit. For example, the Wood Green branch of Waterstones would specialise in science fiction and the lead store expert would update their intranet site with the latest information. Finally some motivation and enthusiasm was brought back into the bookselling trade.

Yet the smaller stores still couldn’t compete, and in 2006 Ottakers were taken over by Waterstones. With the rise of the supermarkets and online shopping it seemed a sensible merger. The case study that Simon used to highlight his point was the Harry Potter craze. It was shops like Ottakers that created the initial buzz with the midnight store openings and competition prizes, but as the promotions grew so did the power of the supermarkets who started selling the books for less than half price. It became a ruthless pricing war, one that the Booksellers couldn’t fight – some even started buying their stock from the rival supermarkets!

The second part of Simon’s talk addressed the digital future/present. In his current role in digital sales at Faber and Faber he explained what the market currently looks like. There are three threats facing the industry: 1) books are now competing with technology and they eat into people’s leisure time. Now people play games and won’t read in their spare time. 2) The rise of digital. He used the example of maps – these used to be published by Phillips, but since the Sat Nav became available maps have  almost obsolete. 3) The fall of the traditional publishing model. Agents are beginning to dealing directly, cutting  out the publishers and selling straight to Amazon.

The evening’s second speaker was bookstore owner Simon Key. Simon started his bookselling career at 15 where he was trained how to buy and sell books and gradually built up his skills and expertise. In 1990 he joined Waterstones and become truly passionate about his job. His love for bookselling came from the fact that he had a choice in what was sold in his department. He was responsible for a floor, the budget and the stock. But when Waterstone’s decided to centralise their decision making, the responsibility of the bookseller diminished and so did the job satisfaction for the booksellers. Stores now had plans detailing where certain books should be placed; all decisions were made from the Head Office.

Despite this Simon had a lot of success in his branch. He worked with local communities and talked to schools about reading choices, but unfortunately the Head Office decided to make some cut backs and decided to close the store. However, this was not the end of Simon’s bookselling career. In 2007 he started his new venture: the Big Green Bookshop. He saw that with the closure of Waterstones there wouldn’t be a bookshop anywhere along the Wood Green high street, so he decided to start his own. With a lot of support from the community he managed to get the shop underway.

Since then the bookshop has grown, although it hasn’t all been easy. Simon and his colleagues are working hard to promote reading in their local community and 58 of the 70 schools in the borough already have an account with the shop, but half the community still don’t know where the shop is. They have also set up deals with publishers so certain authors can have a spot in their window for a week. It’s this enthusiasm and hard work which first attracted Simon to bookselling and he is always thinking of new ways to carry on with his passion.

It seems that the whole book-buying experience needs to be authenticated. As digital advances increase and so does the power of the supermarkets, local bookstores need to work hard to hold on to what makes them truly special. You simply can’t capture the feeling of discovering a new book or author on an internet site or supermarket shelf. It’s places like the Big Green Bookshop that are working hard to bring back this lost art and we could all learn from their hard work and dedication.