Bookselling – starting out; the traditional way

John Walsh The BEBC is Britain’s largest specialist English Language Teaching bookseller. Here, John Walsh, Managing Director shares  all… from the days of the Net Book Agreement, to the more recent threats from Amazon…

Starting any business requires timing and luck in equal measures and a realistic approach to the competition and all of this before you start. When BEBC opened in 1974, opening a bookshop was the stuff that retirement dreams were made of (either that or running a pub) and bookselling seemed a remarkably safe business in which to be. Goods were supplied on a sale or return basis and so long as your customers paid for their books within the credit period allowed by the publishers, it could easily be a cash rich and safe business to be in, funded as it was, by publishers.

The growing use of credit cards helped the bookseller’s cash flow as well but it is worth remembering that in 1974 a bookseller could wait six weeks to obtain a book from Oxford University Press, based in Neasden, so a bookseller’s invoice was often due for payment before you had received, never mind sold, your books.

These were the days of the Net Book Agreement, no competition from supermarkets, no Amazon, Waterstones or Borders, no publishers supplying schools direct and very low expectations from our customers of a speedy delivery – fortunately. There was a good number of general booksellers making a living so the opportunity for BEBC was to open a bookshop catering for a niche market.

Using SWAT analysis principles, addressing the atrocious delivery times would produce competitive edge (over the local educational bookseller), and negotiating higher discounts from publishers would enable BEBC to offer the famous “educational discount” that schools expected without damage to the margins, and thus the two bogeymen of price and service were addressed in one hit.
BEBC went to collect our books every week from the of publishers who dealt in the niche area of TEFL and they all had warehouses, offices  or “Trade Counters” in or around London. Every Monday we would collect, from the publishers,  orders we had placed the previous Thursday and, often, in those glorious days where the computer was only on its way to supremacy but hadn’t quite arrived, we were able to collect the books we wanted and our invoice followed!

Since we were in London we also delivered to our London customers – often delivering the books collected  hours earlier – so suddenly our delivery times were 6 days or less compared with the competition’s 6 weeks.  This weekly collection and delivery lasted from 1974 until 1979 when publishers own delivery times improved dramatically.

Over the years BEBC has grown significantly, diversified, become computerised, and after 37 years the brand has survived but is now faced with new threats. You have to sell online but you have to compete with Amazon, the global free delivery of Book Depository,  and soon Gardners Hive. Specialist booksellers have to flaunt their speciality and closely examine the competition. Put a telephone number on your website prominently because in this age of online this and digital that there is still a substantial part of our market who like to talk to people, to ask advice, and to gain reassurance that the books they are looking for are right for them.

Amazon’s strength and its  weakness is one and the same:  its ability  to do without the overhead of people answering phones (still quaintly called Customer Service by their competitors). The ability of Amazon and Book Depository to destroy booksellers (and publishers) by demanding and offering discounts and free home delivery which the independents cannot match, together  with supermarkets carrying the top twenty best sellers  plus loss leaders, is a reflection on the difficulties facing  independent booksellers today. Competition for booksellers today is so great that you really do have to specialise in a niche sector and provide the personal, advisory service over the quaint old phone to win and retain customers. The simple love of books and belief that Joe Public will love bookshops is not a sustainable nor commercially viable model.

For more information on BEBC and the excellent service they provide, please view their Website: