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Five Waterstones (sort of) Myths Explained… by Isabel Popple

Sarah LOsborne26 February 2016

I can’t quite believe it, but I’ve worked for Waterstones for over ten years. A decade. Yikes, that makes me feel old. But in that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes, a lot of good things, quite a few bad things, ups and downs. I’m sure you don’t want all the nitty gritty, suffice to say that, the era of James Daunt is most definitely part of the good and very much an ‘up’ on the great retail rollercoaster.

As someone who’s been a bookseller for so long, though, it’s easy for me to forget that much of the inner workings of this part of the publishing industry are often hidden from view. So, sometimes, I get a little alarmed by some of the things that are said about how the system works – a lot of what we’re told in class is true, but occasionally – just occasionally – they’re not entirely true of Waterstones. Waterstones is a company that is trying its absolute hardest to do the best for all its customers: the readers, the publishers, and the writers – and to re-address some of the old industry sticking points.

So here are five things about how Waterstones works that I hope will surprise you. And if you have any other questions you’d like to ask, tweet me @bookythought

1. Publishers pay for their books to go in the chart and the windows

False. This used to be true. It isn’t any more. Each shop’s booksellers choose which books go in their windows, and their chart is based purely on that store’s sales.

There are guidelines, of course, but nothing is dictated – for instance, we’d be expected to have a really bright children’s display for half term holidays that emphasises a ‘buy one get one half price’ offer, and almost always to have a display that promotes one of our books of the month. But it’s up to us which of these books we want to shout about. Why? Because each shop is different, and each community it serves is different. And that’s how, in my old stomping ground of Truro, Cornish writers frequently make it into the chart – because we champion and support them and because our community wants books written by its own.

2. Discounting…

True. Yes, discounting is expected. Of course it is. Waterstones would never be able to pay my wage otherwise. And they’d never be able to pass those discounts on to customers through ‘money off’ or ‘multibuy’ offers.

When James Daunt became Managing Director he renegotiated discounting terms with many, many publishers. It caused a bit of a furore at the time, because he essentially asked everyone to provide a flat rate discount. On top of this, he told them they could no longer pay for their books to feature prominently at the front of store or in our windows. So why would the publishers acquiesce? Well, that’s partly between them and him, but as I understand it, it is because (a) Waterstones is the last surviving highstreet bookshop chain and we’re important and necessary to publishers, and (b) because he offered them a compromise. The compromise? Returns (more on this below).

And when the books hit the stores, again it’s up to the booksellers in each shop which books will be put on offer. There is an exception to this: our half price offers. The discounting for these is negotiated on a case-by-case basis with publishers, so it’s important to be consistent across the company. Often, the extra terms are agreed on the basis of promising the publisher that we’ll sell a certain number of copies, a number that might only be fulfilled by selling the title at half price.

3. Books are bought on a sale or return basis

True. But it’s not as bad it’s been made out to be, not in Waterstones today, anyway. We call this process ‘returns’; it’s where bookshops don’t pay for the books they buy from publishers until three or more months down the line. It enables us to send back excess unsold stock.

At one point, my main role in the shop was picking and processing returns, they were such a big part of the business. These were the ‘pile ‘em high’ days of bookselling. Not any more. When those discounting contracts were renegotiated, so were the returns procedures. We still send books back, absolutely we do, but we send back far, far fewer than we did pre-Daunt. This is because stock is managed far more carefully today: (a) less copies of each book are sent to each store (therefore, we’re more likely to sell all the copies we have), and (b) our warehouse (the ‘hub’) enables stock to be recycled around the company (if Shop A isn’t selling Book 1, but Shop B can’t keep it on their shelves, Shop A can send Shop B their unwanted stock. Bingo). Better for Waterstones, better for publishers.

Books do still get returned. We can’t always get it right! But they’re more likely to be old editions, or one or two copies of books we’ve had on the shelf for an age and nobody’s bought, rather than fifty copies of something that was overbought.

4. Signed copies of books are bad

False. This is the most bizarre bookselling myth I’ve ever come across. Any shop that rejects an author request to sign copies of their book would have to be out of their mind. And never, in my ten years, have I heard of a publisher rejecting to the return of signed copies on the basis that they are damaged goods. The publisher will want to support their author, and a book is almost always more likely to sell if it has been signed. It’s just such a nice extra that almost everyone will always appreciate. Who can say no to that?

5. Layout…

So Mal Peachey, Editor-in-chief at Rocket 88, suggested that the typical layout of a bookshop was back-to-front; that the biggest titles should be at the back of the shop to make customers walk past all the other stuff to get there. It’s an interesting idea.

But: people are inherently lazy. Bookish people will go to the other sections naturally – brilliant. But those people are probably going to come in and browse and buy anyway. One key to increasing sales (other than getting bookish people to buy more than they might have been planning to) is to get those non-bookish people through the door. This is most likely to happen if they spy something interesting in the window. And if they spy something interesting in the window, they’re going to want to find it quickly and easily because they’re not used to bookshops. That’s one reason why we have ‘front of store’ – that space right by the doors where the biggest offers go, the new books, the books everyone is talking about, or that we want everyone start talking about. If they can’t find what they want straight away, they’re going to go and buy it online instead. And we definitely don’t want that.

By Isabel Popple – @bookythought

Commuter Insights: Books for London

Sarah LOsborne10 February 2016

Photo by: Saïda

Photo by: Saïda

Following on from my last blog on Books on the Underground, I’m going to discuss a similar book campaign called Books for London, which was established by Chris Gilson in 2011.

Books for London aims to establish a book sharing scheme across London’s tube stations. The scheme is entirely dependent on volunteers, and their first aim is to reach as many tube stations as possible. They hope to “cement London as a capital of literacy.”

This campaign differs from that of Books on the Underground – rather than leaving books on tube seats, they instead establish shelves within stations, and commuters can either pick up or donate books. Books can be distinguished by their labels. So far, book swaps are recorded at 11 known London stations – hopefully more in the future!

In December 2011, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London said, “I think it’s a very good idea and would say something powerful about the kind of city we are and our commitment to literacy, which obviously we are trying to demonstrate in lots of ways particularly with young people.” Books for London won the #ideas4Mayor competition at the London Policy Conference.

Like Books on the Underground, Books for London are looking for regular volunteers and if you’re a regular commuter and book lover like me, then: firstly, it won’t take up too much of your time, and secondly, you’re helping to reinvigorate people’s love of literature,

As many as 13 million books are sent to UK landfills every year – quite a devastating figure that we should aim to prevent. Campaigns like Books for London are a great way to cut back on the 13 million, and will help create a more sustainable environment. World Book Day is fast approaching (March 3) – what better way to celebrate your love of books by helping a campaign like Books for London?

There are so many campaigns like this that typically go unnoticed – help spread the word and keep your eyes peeled when commuting. Or, have a look at the links provided on the Books for London website (right-hand side bar) and see how you can get involved.

More information can be found on their website, twitter, and facebook. If you’re interested in helping out then send them an email at londonbookswap@gmail.com.

My next commuting blog will be the last blog of the commuting series – details will be revealed next month!

Commuter Insights: Books on the Underground

Sarah LOsborne13 January 2016

So, I’ve had a month off from commuting and what a pleasure it has been! As I haven’t got much to say about commuting this month, I thought I would discuss a “project” (if you will) called Books on the Underground.

The title, Books on the Underground speaks for itself. They place books in random trains on London’s underground. They are placed there with the intent that they be taken, read, and shared with others. Books on the Underground is a not-for-profit organisation that describes itself as “your local library”.

The project’s sole purpose is to brighten people’s days in the bustling capital, and they merely ask commuters to return the books after reading them.

Books can be found via images posted by Books on the Underground. These images often feature a book in front of a station’s sign. They are always looking for other generous volunteers who are willing to distribute books, as well as any book donations.

Their idea has been so influential that there is now an established Books on the Subway in New York, and Books on the Metro in Washington D.C. Books on the Underground has also created a book club where they give out 20 free books a month to those who attend.

It’s a great idea that aims to spread the enjoyment of literature among busy commuters, many of which may struggle to find time to read and relax. It’s a thoughtful and selfless act that aims to break the repetition of daily life as a commuter, and I wish I had thought of the idea myself! It makes me look forward to the dreaded commutes, and I anticipate discovering one of the books myself. I just hope that commuters can continue to respect and appreciate the project for what it is, and fingers crossed that Books on the Underground will continue to grow!

If you want to find out more about them then have a look at their Twitter, Facebook, or website.

Next time I will be discussing a similar scheme, called Books for London.

Celebrities Use Pink Post-it Notes Too! – Russell Brand at The Reading Agency

Caroline AMurphy26 November 2014

BLOGRUSSELL

Photo courtesy of Amy Davies

By Caitlin Mehta (@CaitlinMehta)

Every now and then when reading a book I’ll struggle to find a book mark. While I used to use the (barbaric) method of folding down the corner when I was young and foolish, the older and more considerate me now opts for old train tickets, receipts (for food most likely) and occasionally the odd post-it note. This may seem completely unrelated to the fact that a few of my course mates and I went to hear Russell Brand give The Reading Agency’s annual lecture, but bear with me!

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this evening: was it going to be a serious affair? How could it be with Russell Brand as the guest speaker? Would he focus on books? What’s his favourite book? Would he talk about political affairs? Would it just be about reading? I should have already been able to answer a lot of these questions based on my knowledge of him. It’s funny that feeling of familiarity we get when thinking of celebrities we’ve actually never met. Having grown up hearing about this man constantly in the news and seeing him prance around in an (admittedly) hypnotic manner on my television screen I should have known.

It wasn’t all jokes but at the same time it wasn’t deadly serious or even the ‘b word’ (boring) either. There is something about Russell Brand when he gets going on a good rant that you just can’t ignore. Perhaps it’s the purposefully intricate vocabulary he utilises that you may not have previously understood, but do now however due to the context and manner in which he so eloquently weaves it into his speech (that was a pretty good attempt at his style of speaking, right?).

The narrative theme of Russell’s lecture (a title I would use very loosely), was to explain what reading meant to him as he read extracts from books gifted to him by family, fans and other famous people. One particular highlight was his rendition of an early chapter of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. Before mocking the crude seeming, old-fashioned names ‘Dick’ and ‘Fanny’ in typical Russell style (there I go pretending I know him personally again), he went on to explain to the audience that this book, bestowed upon him by Auntie Pat, showed him that books could open portals to other worlds. This is a notion that I feel some adults forget as life gets in the way of reading for pleasure.

Whilst reading from these books I suddenly noticed that curiously, much like myself, Russell Brand also seemed not to be in possession of a real bookmark. Sure enough as the comedian worked his way through the hefty stack of books he brought on stage it appeared that in each one he had marked his place with a bright pink post-it note. One of these even got stuck to his trousers much to my amusement.

I realise this was not the main message to take away from the evening. Books really are fantastic; libraries are too. That was the eventual point of the long-winded lecture. However to me, the makeshift post-it bookmarks were a sharp reminder that yes he is a “celebrity” but still  a human being not so far flung from myself. A human being with flairs and flaws who likes to read stories both factual and fictional as a means of escapism. It is stories, as Muriel Ruysker was quoted as saying, that make up the universe.

That and funny men with long hair and pink post-its stuck to their legs!

 

Check out Caitlin’s blog at www.caitlinlouisemehta.wordpress.com