The value of booksellers

In this guest blog post Neil Atkinson shares his views on books, bookselling and the value of booksellers.

Last Monday we were lucky enough to have Julia Kingsford, head of marketing at Foyles, come and talk to us about the current state of the book market. As a bookseller it was interesting –  though not particularly surprising – to hear how closely her views chimed with my colleagues at Waterstone’s.

Most of what Julia talked about was fairly straightforward, but perhaps so obvious people tend to forget to think about it, especially the idea that if we don’t sell books, people won’t buy them. Our Course Leader, Alison Baverstock, likes to point out that we often undervalue books and that perception affects how much we are willing to pay for them. But now that books are just one medium among many competing for our attention, it’s going to take a lot of work to persuade us to change our ways. After all, why buy a  book at all when a DVD is so much easier to absorb or a game offers a more immersive experience?

Despite all this, I’m not sounding the death knell for the book: like many, I am an avid gamer who still loves books and I balance my time between plenty of different forms of entertainment. That’s the way the world is and publishers and booksellers have to work together to maintain the book’s popularity as readers are constantly offered new ways to spend their free time.

Foyles flagship store on Charing Cross Road. Photographer: Fin Fahey.

Julia, like many of us at Waterstone’s, believes the book market is growing, yet hidden behind the trade of second-hand books. While that’s good news for some retailers (especially Amazon), it’s bad news for publishers and also for some booksellers – Foyles attempt to break into the second-hand market was far from a success.

But the largest problem with the second-hand trade is that no one can measure how large it is. And, like piracy, it’s also impossible to measure how it affects purchasing habits. It would be easy to assume that a second-hand purchase is simply a lost sale, but I’ve bought used titles which led to me buying the sequels first-hand. How much, or how little, is that being repeated throughout the market?

Publishers today are in the unenviable position of bearing a lot of responsibility for marketing, while having very little direct contact with their market. Publishers need to know more about their readers and, at least in the short term, that means using the knowledge of booksellers. Of course not all booksellers are equal: dedicated booksellers need to sell books in order to survive; Amazon and the supermarkets do not. And what the dedicated booksellers do is offer a personal service. The other day, a man walked into my store with no idea what he wanted to read, only that he wanted to read. He’d browsed Amazon and bought nothing. After 30 minutes with us he left with £50 of books.

Neil Atkinson is  a student on the MA in Publishing at Kingston. He also works as a bookseller at Waterstone’s.


3 responses to “The value of booksellers

  1. Neil, great post. Thanks for stepping up to the challenge. It’s interesting to see how your experience with another retail chain compares.

    Some of Julia’s other insights which stuck with me were:
    • Foyles’ brash self-promotion: calling themselves the “largest bookseller in the world” in 1906. When they weren’t. Yet.
    • Their claim to be the last high street retailer with a standpoint of being “genuinely passionate about books”. Would you and your Waterstone’s colleagues disagree?
    • The idea that books are new until you’ve read them – so turning the publisher definition of ‘frontlist’ on its head.

    And finally, the reminder – which you draw out above – that:
    Bookselling is at the coalface of publishing: the place where you see what customers really want.

  2. Pingback: Kingston’s high-street bookstore is still alive and kicking | Kingston Publishing: inspiring future publishers·

  3. Pingback: Looking Beyond the Book: reflections on the annual SYP conference | Kingston Publishing: inspiring future publishers·

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