Reboot #3 Workshop: Bookselling (Notes and Reflections)

The Reboot workshop on bookselling is the third hosted by Wischenbart Consulting (more here on the earlier workshops). It was attended by 40 delegates from around the world (Argentina, German, Greece, India, Slovenia, Mexico, Portugal, UK and US) bringing together an interesting cross-section of booksellers, publishers and data service providers, featuring some large chains, some small indies, with a diverse range of operations.  The topics for discussion were how book retailers had been able to adapt during the covid-19 pandemic and strategies for recovery.

In order to maintain business through lockdown restrictions, booksellers have had to encourage their customers to find them online, reduce their operational costs wherever possible, and redeploy staff to local digital marketing and hand-delivery initiatives.  Not all businesses have been able to bear the ongoing costs of renting retail space; many bookshops that closed their doors because of covid-19 restrictions will not reopen.  Those retailers with prior ecommerce capability have had the advantage of infrastructure in place, yet still experienced logistical issues (getting the books from A to B) as well as the challenge of finding new ways to market online.  Some retailers had the additional challenge of having to get stock online and launch ecommerce offerings.  Rudiger Wischenbart and others, highlighted the role of comprehensive book data and metadata in selling online.  From the creation of online product catalogues to tracking of sales trends, it stands to reason that shifting to online bookselling is far simpler in territories where publishers and retailers have adopted a standardized way of communicating book data.

Community & Collaboration

Birgit Hagmann, from the German Bookselling chain Thalia, spoke about the motivation behind the local e-marketplace initiative Shopdaheim. It was instigated by Thalia as a community response to the closing of the high street, and brought together 4000 German retailers, from grocers to sportswear, to allow trading to continue during the covid-19 pandemic.  Hagmann explained that Thalia had also taken a strategic decision to continue ordering stock from publishers to replenish the physical shops during lockdown, so that once the restriction were relaxed the doors could be opened to customers with items on the shelves.  Hats off to Thalia for this act of forbearance and also the speedy launch of Shopdaheim e-marketplace.  This narrative of local community pulling together was one that continued throughout the workshop.

Diversification & Skills

Nitasha Devasar, Managing Director of T&F India and President of the Association of Publishers of India, explained that the situation has been, and still is, really tough for the Indian book market.  Some of the longest standing booksellers have closed for good.  Nevertheless, the book supply chain is still needed.  There has been a surge in demand for academic ebooks, in response to the closure of university libraries and this is something T&F (as an academic publisher) has supported through the provision of bespoke training for booksellers on ebook provision using platforms like Vital Source.    

Facilitating Transactions

Paulo Oliveira claimed that Portugal was among the worst hit publishing markets in Europe; with book sales down 26% by volume and 28% by value.  Prior to the covid-19 outbreak, online transactions were not something that customers had fully adopted. Oliveira explained how Bertrand Livreiros, chain bookseller with 55 stores and 15 years of online experience, facilitated online sales via a customer call centre.  Orders and payment are received by phone and keyed into the ecommerce system on behalf of the customer.  Consumer hesitance to shop directly online is just one obstacle that this retailer has had to tackle, nevertheless Betrand’s solution highlights the implicit trust between customer and bookseller.

Bringing Books to Life (and the door)

It was particularly interesting to hear of novel ways that booksellers (and other local retailers) have been forced to adapt their business to supply chain issues to reach their consumer base.  For example, in Argentina the logistics suppliers that ordinarily deliver books have been redirected to medical and healthcare equipment, leaving publishers and bookshops to fend for themselves in terms of shipping and distribution.  Hernán Rosso of Big Sur Libros, stressed it was the proximity to the customer and creative ways of using social media that allowed them to continue selling online.  They launched a radio station for books, a WhatsApp channel announcing new titles and began hand delivering orders by bike.  These examples demonstrate that it is the human touch that really brings books to life and makes people want to buy them. 

Book Culture is Collaborative

Fernando Pascual of El Sótano in Mexico articulated what many of us who work in bookselling and publishing know intuitively, that bookshops are not just companies selling books.  They are spaces where books are discovered and shared, the shops are part of a wider ecosystem of book consumption.  Thus, El Sótano administers an online marketplace for a collective of 40 independent bookshops.  Customers ordered online from a single catalogue and can select which bookshop they want the sale to be allocated to.  El Sótano have also been in the vanguard of adopting metadata via the Metabooks data aggregator. 

Backlist versus Frontlist

Paulo Oliveira explained that in Portugal the backlist titles had certainly been outselling the frontlist titles over the spring and summer of 2020, however a key factor in this was supply rather than demand.  He noted that publishers delayed the launch of their new titles over the past six months so there simply was not the usual influx of new titles to promote or sell.  But he felt there was a rebalancing of this as shops reopen and new titles are being launched in advance of the Christmas peak.  Mauro Tosca, agreed and referenced the NYT article (Alter, 2020) discussing the self-perpetuating phenomenon of bestsellers and the dominance of PRH in this area.

Data driven

Helena Markou, who coordinates the MA Publishing via distance learning at Oxford Brookes, spoke about the ways data skills are taught on the degree programmes.  Firstly, to inform marketing and editorial decisions. Nielsen BookScan TCM data is used to estimate a title’s potential by looking at past sales of titles on a similar topic or by a particular author.  The caveat being that BookScan data do not cover all formats, markets or sectors (e.g. ebooks, Amazon editions, library, educational), and that historic sales are unlikely to support diversification within publishing.  Secondly, students are taught about creating bibliodata in the production sense, adding it to the print and digital books they design.  Finally, at Brookes they teach data analysis and consumer insight, focusing on the ways user data can be used to deliver subscription content to targeted audiences. 

Reflections & Opportunities

On reflection, I feel it is in the development of online audiences, where online bookselling has some real opportunities for growth above and beyond the bricks-and-mortar shop.  Especially if it can be converted into some kind of subscription model with a lifetime customer value in mind – a bit like an old-school mail order book club.  In the workshop, I gave the personal example of sending an independent bookseller a request on twitter for £50 of children’s books of their choosing.  This was based on the trust we had built up through lockdown over social media and their specialist knowledge of children’s books.  I am an ex-bookseller and a lecturer in publishing, so obviously I could have picked some titles out myself – but in that moment I was tired, and busy negotiating two jobs and childcare, and just wanted to outsource that decision to someone else.  Beyond this, the fun of taking my daughter into our nearest bookshop and allowing her to pick books herself is sadly tainted with the risk of spreading or catching covid.  

I’m going to ramble on a bit now with some of my PhD research findings, these are based on interviews I’ve carried out with UK booksellers discussing the time allowed for books to succeed or fail.  Please do bear with me.

In a physical setting, high street or otherwise, bookshops are limited in terms of potential market size to typical footfall for the location.  The higher the daily churn of people walking through the doors, the greater the opportunity to take chances on new titles (let’s call this speculative stock ordering).  The Uffizi Gallery gift shop in Florence, or the Tate in London, (pre-covid) had millions of visitors per year walking through their door and could therefore take risks on the stock curation.  Customers visit these places to experience culture, be inspired, and maybe buy a book as a memento they do not tend to have a shopping list in mind.   Whereas, booksellers situated in retail locations with limited footfall often aim to limit the risk by limiting the speculative ordering.  Instead, they curate stock carefully to those titles, authors, topics or genres known to sell (let’s call this predictable stock ordering).

Booksellers, of course, know well that predictable stock ordering does not necessarily mean 100% backlist; a specialist bookseller catering to the university market will order in new editions, but generally on the basis of known adoptions.  Similarly, a small independent bookshop in a tourist location might curate their frontlist stock carefully to fit the interests of their typical customer and adapt to known seasonality.  Equally, just because a bookshop has a stock ordering strategy based on predictable demand there is still always an element of serendipity at play; a portion of the customers who walk in with a particular book in mind but are open to impulse buys as well. 

This is where savvy merchandising and promotions can be particularly effective.  We booksellers know there are some books that simply won’t get noticed when shelved in its section but will fly out the door when displayed face out or on a table.  However, as previously mentioned, covid-19 is the smotherer of impulsive behaviour; for the time being at least, our physical interactions are weighed up against the potential risks.  How do you draw attention to these types of books online?  In fact, how do you know they exist?

With online bookselling the potential market size is unlocked, but (and there is a big ‘but’) to make products discoverable and bring book data to life is not quite so easy online.  As exemplified by Hagmann’s confession that at Thalia they manually tag every product added to the online catalogue with their own semantic keywords to make them more discoverable.

Offline, even a small bookshop can hold 5,000-10,000 unique products and present them to customers in a way that is easy for the eyes to take in.  Booksellers handle hundreds of books in their day-to-day work just by shelving them.  There is muscle memory involved in handling books, which results in a deep familiarity with the stock –be it fresh new titles just arriving, or longselling backlist staples.  I can still conjure in my mind the exact location, and height, of the shelf where all Phillip K Dick’s books sat in the Waterstones I worked in, and I haven’t needed that knowledge for over seven years.  

Have you ever tried familiarising yourself with 5,000 product lines on a spreadsheet? I have. Data in this format are not so easily absorbed.  One might struggle to fill a radio station with book chat (as per Big Sur) based on bibliographic metadata alone.  Without wanting to over-romanticise the bookseller’s role, it does helps to have some real human knowledge and passion when attempting to merchandise online.  Thus, there is some real advantage is to be gained by combining online reach with shop-floor curatorial dexterity.   

References

Alter, A., 2020. Best Sellers Sell the Best Because They’re Best Sellers. [online] The New York Times. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/19/books/penguin-random-house-madeline-mcintosh.html>

Blair, A., 2020. How German Bookseller Thalia Paid It Forward When COVID Hit. [online] Retail TouchPoints. Available at: <https://retailtouchpoints.com/topics/customer-experience/how-german-bookseller-thalia-paid-it-forward-when-covid-hit>

n.a, 2019. Metabooks llega a México. [online] PublishNews. Available at: <https://www.publishnews.es/materias/2019/12/04/metabooks-llega-a-mexico>

Schulte, C., 2020. Thalia Mayersche und Osiander starten “Shop daheim.” [online] Börsenblatt. Available at: <https://www.boersenblatt.net/archiv/1838832.html>

Taylor & Francis Group, 2019. Taylor & Francis India’s Managing Director, Nitasha Devasar re-elected as the President of the Association of Publishers in India [Online Press Release]. Informa Newsroom. Available at: <https://newsroom.taylorandfrancisgroup.com/taylor-francis-indias-managing-director-nitasha-devasar-re-elected-as-the-president-of-the-association-of-publishers-in-india/>

Tentoni, V., 2020. Hernán Rosso: “Somos una comunidad literaria.” [news blog] Eterna Cadencia. Available at: <https://www.eternacadencia.com.ar/blog/contenidos-originales/noticias/item/hernan-rosso-somos-una-comunidad-literaria.html>

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