Yes, the grocery business is huge. And while it’s one of several industries Amazon hasn’t yet dominated, there’s something way more significant about their acquisition of Whole Foods.
Yes, the grocery business is huge. And while it’s one of several industries Amazon hasn’t yet dominated, there’s something way more significant about their acquisition of Whole Foods.
Sheila O’Reilly is the Events Manager Village Bookshop in Dulwich Village. She is a bookseller with over 18 years’ experience of running bookshops and author event. Passionate about running hugely successful events that customers enjoy she also loves reading well written stories. Here she shares her top tips for running bookshop events.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
Each month BookMachine offers a community member, with great ideas, the chance to write on the site. This month, publisher and author of ‘This book is about Heffers’, Julie E Bounford, writes on bookshops and their unique sellers and customers.
The 140-year history of Heffers of Cambridge, demonstrates that bookselling is as much about people as it is about books. As Janette Cross says recently in The Author, bookshops have people who know their customers, who read books and who live in the real world. I couldn’t agree more. People are smarter than algorithms.
In researching, writing and publishing ‘This book is about Heffers’, I interviewed over sixty past and present staff, customers and authors. What stands out about this remarkable bookselling phenomenon of the twentieth century is the character and style of its people.
For example, bookseller, Duncan Littlechild, a pacifist, disapproved of Winston Churchill and would say to customers, “You don’t want to buy that old rogue.” Littlechild began his 54-year career at Heffers in 1903 and was a WW1 prisoner of war. Considered old school by the 1950s – he had a reputation for kowtowing to academics – his favourite customer was the English comedian and character actor, Cyril Fletcher.
It wasn’t just the booksellers who were characters. Author Julian Sedgwick, who worked at Heffers from 1991, fondly recalls the parade of “influential, cosmopolitan, charming, grumpy, famous, notorious, odd and downright weird” customers. He shares his most memorable in the book.
At Heffers many idiosyncrasies were accommodated. In the 1970s the Children’s Bookshop had a big round red seat, on which one adult customer liked to curl up and go to sleep. Another would play the violin in the main bookshop, and yet another would always wear a lifejacket (in Cambridge?). Mr Doggett, who still comes in every week, would stand at the front of the shop yelling the cast names from the 1947 film production of Oliver Twist. Recalling the multitude of interesting and eccentric characters, bookseller David Wilkerson describes bookselling as being ‘edgy’.
It strikes me that characters inhabit all aspects of the book world. We know that a well-told story will feature convincing characters. Unsurprisingly, many authors are themselves notable characters. Indeed, publishing and bookselling is, and always has been, populated by characters. Even the letters that form the words in a book are termed, ‘characters’.
So, where can we find characters in an online world of algorithm dictated bookselling? In a bookshop environment, characters contribute to the essence of the tangible book-buying encounter. Intelligent conversation with a knowledgeable bookseller can lead to rewarding discoveries that no algorithm could discern (and why on earth do the algorithms think that once I’ve bought something, I’ll want to buy exactly the same thing again?).
The book about Heffers is inspired by my childhood memories of visiting Heffers Children’s bookshop every Saturday morning. There was always time during the family routine for choosing books. I wrote about choosing books, living life in 2014 – http://jebounford.net/choosing-books-living-life/
If we stop using bookshops, we’re in danger of losing our connection with bookish people that have real expertise and character.
Who is your most characterful bookseller or customer, and why?
Dr Julie E Bounford hails from a Cambridge ‘town’ stock of booksellers, bakers and college bedders, and lives with her husband, Trevor, in a Cambridgeshire village. Julie spends her time on research and writing, and on running Gottahavebooks, the Bounford’s small indie publishing operation. Julie is the author of ‘This book is about Heffers’, published 21st October 2016. She’s available for talks on the history of Heffers and commissions in social history research and writing. Julie regularly publishes a blog on her website at http://jebounford.net and can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org
Chicken 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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The news came recently that ReaderLink has purchased Anderson News. Those two companies have been the leading suppliers of books to the mass merchandisers: primarily Wal-mart, Target, and Sam’s Club. There are other players selling books in the space, including Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and smaller distributors like the less-well-known American West. But most of the books going to most of the mass merchant accounts have gotten there through what will now be one company supplying them: ReaderLink.
By my count, that puts four companies in the book business who have extraordinarily powerful holds on their space. They are ReaderLink (in the supply of books to mass merchants), Amazon (as an online retailer), Barnes & Noble (as a bricks-and-mortar retailer) and Penguin Random House (as a commercial trade publisher).
ReaderLink, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble now have extraordinarily powerful positions from which to demand better terms from their publisher-suppliers. In all three cases, they have customer bases which are extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a competitor to take away from them.
Amazon has pretty much owned the online book customer since the year they opened for business in 1995. There is a faint hope that fragmentation of the online marketplace and the placement of commerce in the social stream, such as is enabled by Ingram’s Aer.io technology, could wrest some of their share. Perhaps, over time, that will happen. But they keep pulling further ahead of their only real competition, BN.com, and I am not aware of even one single reporting period when Amazon’s share of the online book market hasn’t grown. It is simply not an option for a publisher who wants to sell to consumers to avoid Amazon. (The only way a publisher could conceivably do that is if their customer base is reached entirely by direct sales or through intermediaries outside the book business.)
Barnes & Noble may be losing brick-and-mortar market share to independents, but they remain by far the leading bookstore chain. If a publisher wants books in the retail marketplace, Barnes & Noble has been, since the demise of Borders five years ago, the only one-stop way to get national coverage. In fact, they almost certainly control the majority of bookstore shelf space in the country, and their single biggest competitor, Books-a-Million, has fewer than half as many stores. And B-a-M’s stores are smaller.
ReaderLink is now in a similar position vis a vis the mass merchants. These stores constitute the other big component of the store retailing system and they are critical for bestsellers, mass-market paperbacks, and “merchandise” like adult coloring books and kids books. In fact, ReaderLink and Anderson lived with what was a “managed competition” controlled by their accounts; they each had stores assigned to them by their mass merchant customers. Publishers have always had to deal with both of them in order to place their books in the mass accounts. And, indeed, it could be that there will be efficiencies to this consolidation that will be beneficial for the publishers. But, if there are, it is also quite likely that ReaderLink will find ways to adjust their terms to take at least some of the benefits back and they are likely to be successful persuading publishers to allow that. (They have also manifestly strengthened their negotiating position with those accounts that are committed to stocking books.)
There is a fourth powerful player: Penguin Random House. PRH is almost (but not quite) the size of the other four members of the Big Five combined. As such, they are in a position to do things in the marketplace that no other publisher could contemplate. Since the merger of Penguin and Random House, I’ve written about what they uniquely could do with their marketplace power. The two key suggestions, neither of which has drawn any evident interest from the management at PRH, were a program to supply non-bookstores with vendor-managed inventory (creating store retail accounts nobody else would have) and to create their own ebook subscription service. (That would also create unique distribution.)
The new combination in mass-merchant supply could suggest another such opportunity. Perhaps this one will be more compelling.
The supply of books to mass merchants, as to any account that is not primarily in the book business and comfortable with both the logistical challenges and relatively low profit potential in books, is complicated, expensive, and usually inefficient. The number of titles that actually make it into these stores is a paltry percentage of the industry’s output. Only the biggest publishers have enough of the right books to really play.
And then the publisher has to cover both the retail accounts that will ultimately sell their books and the distributor-intermediary that supplies them. It will be a bit easier for the big publishers selling books to Wal-mart and Target to manage the business through one big account rather than two (one fewer account to deal with), but it is still a frustratingly inefficient segment of the business. (The one fewer account aspect of this is bound to be causing some nervousness right now in the sales departments of some publishers.) Visibility into inventory status is, relative to the store-level view available at Barnes & Noble, klunky. Returns are high. Responsiveness to breaking events is slow. And the margins are worse than for any other part of the domestic business.
But part of the reason for that is that delivering on the service requirements for these accounts is expensive. One sales executive I spoke to estimated that ReaderLink has more than 2500 detail people calling on the outlets of the mass merchants: checking stock, tidying fixtures, and replacing sold books. No wonder these distributors need hefty margins to do this work. And this also explains why Ingram and Baker & Taylor, who, of course, carry all the titles these merchants would ever need, don’t appear to move aggressively to take this business away from the incumbent(s).
To picture the Penguin Random House options, I try to view this from the perspective of one publisher with about half the books that these mass merchant accounts need. I’m giving away margin to a middle player that adds a layer of inefficiency and cost in order to be an effective aggregator. Obviously, the accounts want that aggregator. They don’t want to deal with hundreds of publishers individually, or even with just each of the Big Five. It would be a non-starter for a publisher supplying five or ten or even twenty percent of their books to say: “can we work out a way to do this directly?” So just about everybody has to accept the inefficiency.
But what about if it were a supplier that provided half the books? And what if that supplier offered, as an opening gambit, to share some of the margin that now goes to the middle player directly with the account? And what if that effectively became the account’s only way to get those books, because the powerful publisher was no longer willing to play ball with the high discounts and high returns that the current system entails?
Only Penguin Random House is in a position to take this approach. And it wouldn’t be an easy thing to do. They’d have to create a VMI system. They’d have to organize a detailing army quite different from the sales force(s) they have created and managed historically. They’d have to either gear themselves up to execute more smaller shipments or form alliances that would make that possible. But the payoffs would also be substantial. And PRH has a much bigger margin share to support their efforts than ReaderLink, or any other wholesaler or distributor, would have.
Sales would go up. Returns would go down. Margins would improve. Their competitors would be weakened. In fact, it is conceivable that, over time, a PRH direct-supply operation could morph into a ReaderLink service that was available to other publishers as well. (All big publishers, including PRH, already offer their core distribution services to competitors. This would be a variation on that theme.)
Perhaps Penguin Random House will never behave in a qualitatively different way than the other Big Five houses, exercising power that they uniquely have. They certainly haven’t so far. On the other hand, it was pointed out to me recently that the integration of what were the two biggest publishers among the Big Six when Random House and Penguin combined four years ago is, even today, not yet complete. Rationalization has occurred in the “back end”, with the consequent job losses which are part of the payoff for the owners in any big merger of this kind. But more consolidation is still in front of them, and perhaps the radical paradigm-shifting initiatives need to wait until that job is really done.
And perhaps Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and now ReaderLink are wary of poking the bear, and are less demanding that PRH honor their primacy with margin than they are of PRH’s competitors. In fact, the CEO of one of their Big Five competitors told me a year or two ago that he liked having a competitor of PRH’s size on the publisher side because this executive felt it kept the overall industry terms under control. The belief on this CEO’s part was that PRH’s size restrained the big accounts to the benefit of all the big players.
But unlike Amazon or Barnes & Noble, whose businesses can not be efficiently replaced by any direct effort, the supply of mass merchant accounts is something PRH could conceivably do better on their own. Whether the acquisition of Anderson by ReaderLink provides the catalyst to get them to try it is something it will probably take a couple of years to find out.
Although Ingram occupies a unique position in the global book supply chain and, indeed, might be the single most important player, they aren’t in the position of these other four to exercise power. In wholesaling, they have always had a powerful national competitor, Baker & Taylor, which is now even more financially stable having itself been acquired by Follett. Even in smaller-publisher distribution, where Ingram grew dramatically by acquiring Perseus, they will always have all the big publishers and a host of smaller distributors as alternatives for those considering their services. Indeed, Ingram could try to compete with ReaderLink for the mass merchant accounts, but they’d have to support the substantial systems and staff investments on a distribution margin, which is a much more challenging proposition than it would be for PRH with the publisher’s margin.
Mike Shatzkin has been in publishing since 1962. Since 1979, Mike has been an independent consultant (The Idea Logical Company) with clients that have included most major publishers in the US and UK, retailers including Barnes & Noble and Borders, wholesalers including Ingram, and a host of tech startups. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeShatzkin. This post was originally posted on The Idea Logical Company blog in May 2016.
Textbook rental company Chegg announced last week it was hoping to raise $150m in an initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange. So what’s the inside track on the company that was most recently valued at $800m?
Last week, a new alliance between supermarket Sainsbury’s and social reading site aNobii rocked the publishing world. As I’ve said before, aNobii have been ramping up their online presence of late and it seems to have paid off with this deal, sparking some discussion as to whether this was Sainsbury’s well and truly making their move into eBook retailing. But can they realistically take on the giants of the book selling industry? In a fight between young-gun Sainsobii and godly Wamazon*, who would win?
Sticking an ever so dignified and respectable two fingers up at Amazon, beloved London bookseller Foyles has this week launched an ebook store and accompanying apps. The venerable, iconic independent chain – with five branches in London and one in Bristol, for the more adventurous metropolitan – already has over 200,000 titles on offer, which is presumably more than are contained even in its flagship five-floored Charing Cross Road shop.
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