Tag: bookseller

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.

10 tips for bookselling from the shop floor

chickenandfrod30ar03ap01zk-hayes3a_mdmChicken and Frog Bookshop is the only independent children’s bookshop in Essex. The family owned and run store opened its doors in October 2012.

We have been book lovers since our childhoods. If you want to be a successful bookseller, passion helps! Lots of it. Over the past four years, we have learnt a great deal about bookselling, so here’s our top tips:

1) Set out your stall

The environment you create is key. It needs to be engaging and easy to navigate. Use shelf talkers, make collections of books, keep your displays fresh.

2) Your window is your main advertising tool

We change ours weekly if possible. It needs to make people stop and look. If it stays the same, people don’t ‘see’ it anymore.

3) Know your store

This is two-fold. Ensure that all staff know where things are – having a change around only works if you can still find the books you’re looking for! And know the books. You can’t make a recommendation if you don’t know what you’re selling.

4) Be ruthless

If a title has been dust collecting for 3 months, it needs to go. That can be really tough, especially if it’s a firm favourite of yours. But, you are not the customer!

5) Know your customers

This is related to tip 4. You may love obscure Japanese poetry, but if your customers don’t, don’t stock it. This was a lesson that we learnt pretty quickly I can tell you.

6) Embrace authors and illustrators

If an author or illustrator wants to visit, welcome them with open arms. They are awesome. But, plan carefully. Be ready and let everyone know about the event.

7) Schools mean business

If you want to survive, you need strong relationships with schools. The reality is, schools have very fixed budgets, so you need to show them how important you are! Offer discounts (if you can), curriculum evenings, free stuff (posters, not books!) and, your time.

8) Connect with your community

Support your community and they will support you. We don’t mean by putting your hand in your pocket – booksellers don’t tend to be rich! But, you can offer storytelling, raffle prizes for good causes, put up a poster or share a Tweet. All of these actions help to foster a sense of community and they make you feel good too!

9) Social media

If you’re a bit of a technophobe, you need to get over it. Twitter and Facebook are effective tools for reaching out to people and getting your message across. The majority of our author links are due to being a little bit cheeky via Twitter.

10) Web presence

We can’t compete with the big boys on price, but we still need a web presence. If you take a look at our website, it’s not all singing, all dancing. We update recommendations, events page and the blog on a regular basis. Other pages are pretty static, but necessary and easy to navigate. Keep it simple.

Chicken and Frog Bookshop owners, Jim and Natasha Radford, harboured the notion of opening a bookshop for many years, before finally taking the plunge. Jim’s IT background, coupled with Natasha’s teaching career, plus a passion for getting children reading, means that the bookshop is full to the brim with a wide range of books and enthusiasm by the page full.

editor

7 things your editor wants you to know

This is a guest post by Emma Smith. Emma is an editor for Trapeze, a new commercial fiction and non-fiction imprint at Orion. Working on a broad range of titles, from humour, memoir and biography to lifestyle, gift and pop science, Emma commissions on the non-fiction side of the list. She recently won the Shooting Star award as part of The Bookseller’s Rising Stars 2016.

1) You are our star and we are your cheerleaders

We’ve chosen you and your work for a reason. You are not just a content monkey churning out words/pictures! If you feel like that for the whole publishing process then something isn’t right. Publishing is collaborative and we should all be working together as a team to get the best results. Your efforts go hand-in-hand with ours; it’s our role to support, develop and amplify what you’re doing. We’re rooting for you!

2) #Squadgoals

Publication is, and should be, a highly involving process and a team effort. It’s about so much more than the content; it’s the marketing and publicity campaign, the sales team, the social media support, the events… I could go on. Generally, the more you put in the more you get out. Dedication to the project should come from all angles. Dream authors are the ones up for anything (within reason)! Great publishers make it happen.

3) Deadlines schmeadlines?

It’s an oft-quoted myth that publishing deadlines are flexible. Sorry folks, not true! (And if you’ve never heard that before then pretend you didn’t just read that first sentence – don’t be getting ideas.) Yes, there are times when we can be adaptable…. and we are a reasonable bunch. If you think you are going to miss dates, then it’s best to be honest (that goes for us too). However, when things get really critical, it can mean altering print schedules and changing publication dates. There is often a team lined up too (proofreaders, copy-editors, production staff, lawyers, indexers etc.) waiting for work to come in so missing deadlines can have a big knock on effect.

4) Editing

Give yourself good time to go through the edits thoroughly. It helps if you make changes during the allotted stages, rather than making lots of tweaks up until the last possible second!

5) Feedback from submissions

I don’t know a single non-fiction editor who has time to read submissions during their working day. Most (if not all) reading is done outside the office. Therefore, if you have submitted something to be considered for publication, any feedback given is thought through. For the same reason, no need to chase for comments the following day. The number of (solicited) manuscripts we have coming through is huge and it’s impossible to read them immediately. Patience is a virtue.

6) Trust us and talk to us

Your editor is there for you to talk to/tweet at/share ideas/have drinks with, so if you’re unhappy with something, feel free to speak up. However, there’s also an element of trust: publishing decisions (such as on covers, subtitles, inside designs, etc.) are all chosen for good reason and to suit the market. Everyone ultimately wants the best for your book!

7) Fortune favours the brave

Be bold and have fun! Contribute ideas, get stuck in with publicity, enjoy the ride. Being published is an amazing experience and you’ll often find that so many opportunities spring up as a result. Relish it – your work is being born into the world! I think that being an editor is like being a midwife, we oversee, manage and support, but ultimately it’s you who pushes the thing out.

 

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…

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