Behind the scenes at Blackwell’s: What publishers can learn from a bookselling icon

Last week I was lucky enough to receive a VIP behind-the-scenes tour of Blackwell’s flagship store in Broad Street, Oxford. The point of the exercise, led by Kate Stilborn, Blackwell’s Customer Service and Operations Director, is to build stronger connections with publishers, in order for all of us to work better together. And sell more books, of course.

I expected a whistle-stop tour, but in fact I was greeted with a full day’s programme, prepared by the shop’s Customer Service Manager, Nicky James, which included meetings with lots of different staff members, and the opportunity to get to grips – literally – with the books themselves. By the time the day ended – with an unexpected fire alarm and al fresco goodbyes – I had aching feet and an even greater appreciation for the dedication and passion of our bookselling colleagues.

So here’s a snapshot of my day at Blackwell’s, plus some – ah – snapshots. (Sorry.)

It’s all about customer experience

The first stage on my tour was the Gaffer’s Office, furnished just as it was in Basil Blackwell’s day, and now used as a reminder of former times and as a green room for visiting speakers. But this step back in time is no indicator of the company’s direction of travel. They’re currently in the midst of a Revolution in Customer Service, and they’re in the process of transition to an employee partnership model similar to John Lewis’s.

In an age when online shopping is so easy, Nicky James explained that Blackwell’s is aiming to provide a wonderful customer experience every single time. They have a programme of ‘mystery shops’, leading to feedback on how customers are treated, with an emphasis on learning rather than blame. I love the fact that there’s a box to tick on the mystery shopping questionnaire for ‘moments of delight’ – that moment when a bookseller goes above and beyond the shopper’s expectations.
The theme of autonomy came up again and again during my time at Blackwell’s. In a booklet containing 10 Great Ideas for Giving Outstanding Customer Service, Toby Blackwell gives staff freedom to bend or break the usual rules in pursuit of excellent service – an approach I find outstanding.

A community of booksellers

After meeting several booksellers from different departments (quite a few of them called James), I found myself in the breathtakingly book-filled Norrington Room, in the care of David Kelly, the store’s Sales Manager. I know this room well from my earlier life in Oxford, but I didn’t know until now that it covers come 10,000 square feet and contains an outrageous three and a half miles of bookshelves.

David also revealed another fact that surprised me, when he told me that the booksellers for each department make their own decisions about what to stock, meeting reps personally and negotiating terms specifically for their lists. My experience of the bookselling world from the publishing side of the net has been one of increasing centralisation and lack of empowerment at the individual shop level, so this was a true surprise for me. Each bookseller organises the displays in  their area of the shop with care and attention, and they invite visiting speakers and academics from the university to curate thematic collections – as you can see on the tables in the picture below.

Yes, David agreed when I questioned him on this, it would be more efficient to negotiate with publishers centrally – but the benefits of empowering staff to make their own decisions about which titles to promote and how to promote them cannot be underestimated.

How can we, as publishers, make David’s work easier, I asked. His answer, without hesitation, was that we should stop jumping on bandwagons such as colouring books and children’s book parodies. In his view, it ‘saturates the market and makes books less special’ – it’s like copying another bookshop’s window display: unimaginative and backward-looking. New ideas, please!

Don’t ignore your backlist

I emerged from the bowels of the building into the bright light of the ground floor, the home of fiction from 1960 onwards. I met James Orton, a star of the bookselling team whose love of books positively radiates from him, and I saw just how much freedom the staff have to curate collections of titles, enabling them to share their passions and participate in topical cultural moments.

Eye-catching shelf displays present customers with hand-picked selections of the booksellers’ current favourites – and what really struck me was that booksellers (just like normal booklovers) get just as excited about books published last year, or fifty years ago, as they do about the latest new releases.
I pulled my weight for a short while and earned the right to wear my Bookseller badge by filling a table with books for James’s Dirty Realism display. This is the point where I learned that there are books everywhere in the shop, stacked under tables in orderly piles, and that booksellers are black belts in the art of carrying armfuls of books without bumping into anyone or falling over – fates I narrowly avoided.

Communication is always good – and advance notice is even better

After working with Maria, Lorna and Jade in the first floor Literature department, my day ended with a chat over coffee in the café with Beth from Events and Aleida from Sales Development. Blackwell’s run a programme of successful book-related events throughout the year, and they also provide bookshop services for many of the academic conferences that take place in Oxford.

Beth loves hearing from publicists, and it’s a useful reminder to us publishers that we have to stay alert for every promotional opportunity. There are more organisations than we may realise who are keen to meet our authors, and whose audiences are ready to buy their books. If they don’t come knocking on our doors, it’s up to us to make the introductions.

Aleida explained that proof copies are invaluable in building up staff enthusiasm for forthcoming titles – you’ve probably got the message already that the team at Blackwell’s are mad about books, and Aleida told me all the staff read the proofs the shops receives. So it’s worth splashing out on some digital copies of your forthcoming titles if you can find room in your budgets.

What would they like from us, as publishers? Beth and Aleida gave me their wishlist:

  • Always time your book events after publication and not before.
  • Make the returns process easy and transparent – dealing with boxes of unsold titles after a festival takes up time that could be spent planning your next big event, so it helps everyone if we can make this as painless as possible.
  • When schedules go awry and stock dates slip, it really helps when publishers are willing to pull out all the stops to get books to an event. Bringing a flexible and positive approach to the inevitable moments of crisis helps us connect readers to books, and makes good business sense for all of us.

Speaking of moments of crisis, our meeting was interrupted at this point by a fire alarm, and I joined book browsers and booksellers in the sunshine on Broad Street for a last chat and goodbye before heading home.

Meeting the staff and seeing behind the scene of one of my all-time favourite bookstores was a treat that I will treasure – and I hope the experiences I’ve shared here have helped to shed a little light on the mysterious world of bookselling that exists between us publishers and those even more mysterious people: the readers.

Many thanks to Kate Stilborn for inviting me, Nicky James for planning the day, plus David, James, Miguel, Maria, Lorna, Jade, Beth and Aleida for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm!

Abbie Headon has worked in editorial and digital roles at Summersdale Publishers and Oxford University Press, and is now working for a range of publishing clients as Abbie Headon Publishing Services. She’s available for all kinds of publishing projects and spends too much time on Twitter at @abbieheadon.

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