The book industry has never really been simple. But looking back to over 15 years ago, when I started my career at Foyles, it certainly felt simpler. It felt like all you had to do was make sure that you stocked the right books and put them in the right place on the shelf. In those days you could build huge stacks of text books and watch them disappear (hopefully through the tills, but not always).
However, from 2002 onwards the change was rapid and, sometimes, unforgiving. I experienced the ensuing disruption from the sharp end of the business: the growth of the internet and online retailing, the explosion of ebooks and print on demand, the surge in availability of smart phones and tablets, rising rents and rates, economic challenges, large structural changes within the publishing industry and increasing political instability. I was lucky enough to work on numerous projects at all levels, including delivering the design and build of the flagship store on Charing Cross Road. And over those years, Foyles developed from a quaint bookseller to a serious contender with multiple sites.
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Intelligent and pragmatic design has always been essential in physical retail, but online retailing has really pushed this up the agenda. Retailers have been forced to demonstrate the worth of stepping through their doors. Simply put, people like being in pleasant and stimulating environments; it is why we go to the beach, or take a walk in a park. So while working on a new store it is important to consider details such as shape, light, colour and even the grain of the wood that makes up the furniture. These are all parts of the medium through which the bookseller communicates desirability of the product to the customer. If the environment is inviting and sparks something in our customers, there is a better chance they will return.
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In the past booksellers and librarians were the custodians of knowledge, gathering titles and influencing the public through their roles. This still happens – in many ways it is more important than ever – but now readers come to store better equipped, knowing full well they can always source it somewhere online. This has changed the dynamic of the retailer/customer relationship from what was traditionally more pedagogical to one of collaboration. You now work alongside the customer helping them arrive at the best possible result using information you share.
What made this change difficult for many booksellers is that traditionally the people drawn to the industry are reserved consumers of arts and literature who are not naturally outgoing. The former more powerful pedagogical role suited them, as it afforded some form of protection by way of authority. After all, only booksellers and librarians had access to the catalogues and databases. It is important to remember that, as much as we love them, bookshops are in fact intimidating places for many, and this feeling of intimidation is actually felt by the bookseller as much as the customer. A bookseller or librarian can be asked any question on any topic and be expected to have some sort of answer; I can tell you from personal experience that this can be very stressful. Therefore the older position of authority afforded the bookseller/librarian a sort of shield to hide behind.
Of course, knowledge is still important for librarians and booksellers. Indeed intelligently filtering information is critical. Yet in this new world of retail we require workers who are open and sensitive to people’s needs, emotionally intelligent enough to adjust their manner, and comfortable with not always knowing as much as the customer in front of them. For should the customer feel that the experience was negative, should they feel intimidated or sense they are being judged, it is easy enough to leave the shop and order online.
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The price of books should not really be an issue – although aggressive discounting, always a ridiculous game, has made it one. People happily pay a premium for coffee and alcohol or food. An upmarket hamburger can cost more than the price of a paperback book, and will be consumed in minutes. Cost is all down to a market educated perception, in the end.
But the perceived value of the experience of reading is different nowadays. Perhaps this is down to time available – something you often hear is that people don’t have the time to read. Yet they have time for social media, emails and TV box sets. What we face then is the challenge of explaining that reading and buying books has a value that ranks as highly as other pursuits.
So as booksellers and publishers we find ourselves in the position of considering value from a more philosophical angle that that of just cost. Essentially the instrumental value of shopping in a bookstore has been heavily challenged, because you can simply sit on the sofa and order the product online, or download it onto a device in a couple of clicks. With the development of hand held devices and streaming, even the instrumental value of reading a book is being questioned. So as an industry we have to continue to demonstrate the intrinsic value in reading books and visiting a bookshop.