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Why Foyles Won Bookseller Of The Year

or ‘Know What You Do And Do It Well.’

I’m not sure the words ‘outrage’ or ‘controversy’ fully convey the level of disgust with which the publishing and bookselling industry responded to last year’s announcement of Sainsbury taking Bookseller of The Year at the Book Industry Awards. Thankfully, this year there will be no need for a riposte titled ‘On Sainsbury’s: A Defence’ (a name whose weighty resonance harks back to old school publishing, but whose content belies a shift away from leather bound hardbacks) from the judicial body, as the ever-loved darling of bookstores, Foyles, has walked away with the industry’s most esteemed accolade.

Foyles. Ah, Foyles. The bookshop with their own slogan (seen above – catchy, innit?); whose bags you can see hanging from every hipster’s shoulder, weighted down with wrinkled copies of Gravity’s Rainbow, the bookmarks firmly lodged between pages 14 and 15; whose tradition of bookselling is older than many publishers; whose Charing Cross branch was once the world’s largest bookstore. They are indeed an impressive force.

Perhaps little known fact about Foyles – it is scheduled to move from its home in Charing Cross (a move that was announced last year), abandoning their ‘flagship’ store. Admittedly, they’re moving just down the road, but what we have here is a break from their hugely-long heritage, perhaps in recognition of changing times. The new shop is a ‘a purpose-designed space, crafted around a central lightwell with a cafe and adjacent art space on the upper floors’. The words ‘purpose designed’ do well with me, hinting at what Philip Downer referred to as an opportunity to ‘redefine the Big Bookshop’.

 

I guess we all hope that if anyone can do it…

There’s no doubt high-street bookshops are under threat from many different places, and equally there’s no doubt that if they disappear, if even one more chain falls, publishers, readers and authors are all looking down the wrong end of a crapstorm. The challenge, Downer was reported saying in this week’s Bookseller, is to not only band together but ‘develop personalities’.

Personality is something Foyles has in bucketloads. Their online strategy  seems focused on manageable communities, not doing something for the sake of it, and ensuring what they do use, they use really well. They run a weekly Twitter competition #bookgame, and have an impressive 12,000+ followers. Their success, it seems, lies largely in the fact they have branded themselves in customer’s minds as wholesome, traditional bookseller who relies on craft and love rather than slashed prices.

I find it encouraging that a bookshop who has not leapt into bed with a tech giant in the hope of gaining precious eBook share is putting money towards developing their physical presence at a time when this seems the last thing on everyone’s mind. It shows either strategy or madness, and I’m inclined to go with the former. They know what they are good at doing, what defines them as a business, and are running with that into the future instead of grasping at zeitgeist.

For all this, Foyles can’t save high street retailers by redefining this one shop. What they can do is save their own skin and possibly showcase a model for other indie bookstores to follow – both in terms of their customer-centric branding and development of a physical space that does more than act as a showroom. Big, huge props to them for winning Bookseller of the Year.

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Felice Howden

Felice Howden had opinions before she knew what the word 'opinion' meant. She wrote for the publishing and ideas blog Socratic Ignorance Is Bliss, and has had short stories published around the place. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2008 with a degree in English and Philosophy, and now spends her time typing code and hatching brain eggs for the future of publishing in a major publishing house.

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