Working in Bookselling Interview Series

Bill Samuel
Bill Samuel

Bill Samuel and Trevor Goul-Wheeker have, between them, run some of Britain’s biggest bookshops, and so we are delighted to have been given the opportunity to find out more about their careers in the industry.  Bill was Vice Chairman of his family’s business Foyles bookshop for twenty years until the company was sold in 2018.  In that time, he was involved in other projects such as the creation of the Emirates Literature Festival held in Dubai.  He now has a place on the board of the BA and is chair of Batch.  His wife Vivienne has always worked in the book trade, too, which is how they met.

Trevor Goul-Wheeker
Trevor Goul-Wheeker

Trevor, after working in the chemicals and biochemicals industries as a B2B marketeer, became managing director of Hammick’s bookshops in 1994, becoming non-executive director of books at W.H. Smith in 2003, and was chairman of Blackwell’s for ten years until 2019.  He served on the council of the BA for nine years and received two British Book Awards for Marketing and Services to Bookselling.  In 2012, Trevor was appointed Chair of the Business School Advisory Board at the University of Greenwich, who generously awarded him with an Honorary MBA in 2015.

We asked Bill and Trevor the same questions about their longstanding careers and their responses give a fascinating glimpse into their views on bookselling, what they love about the trade and the advice they would give to booksellers out on the shopfloor of today.

How much did you enjoy working in bookselling?

Trevor- My 25-year love affair with the book industry started when I was appointed MD of Hammick’s Bookshops in 1994, a role for which I was unprepared.  I loved the brilliant, creative, dedicated people in the book trade, more than the books themselves; the publishers, booksellers, authors, literary agents, and all the others.  For the first time, I was in a world where people were actually in love with their work rather than just seeing it as merely a route to promotions and earning big salaries.  I taught the booksellers in Hammick’s to be business professionals, and they taught me to be a bookseller.  Over the next nine years, we doubled sales from fewer bookshops, although they were enlarged, relocated, and closed ones replaced elsewhere.  We converted a £2m loss into a £2m profit before the business was sold to Ottakar’s, who, in turn, was acquired by Waterstones.  I then spent three years at WH Smith before leaving the book industry and doing a turnaround at Reed Health Group and selling it back to the Reed Employment group, which made me some money, but also revealed how much I missed the book trade.  So I jumped at the invitation to join the boards of an educational bookseller, Haven Books, an e-publishing subscriptions start-up, Green Star Media, and then become Chairman of Blackwell’s.

It wasn’t just the allure of the book sector that brought me back. It was also the promise that when we’d delivered sustainable profits, the owner, Toby Blackwell, would give all his shares to the employees and create an employee-owned company like John Lewis.  After ten hard years, Blackwell’s were on the brink of achieving that profitability and converting to an employee partnership, so I decided it was the right moment to step down and hand over the reins to a retail expert with fresh ideas and energy to see the company over the final hurdles and beyond.

Bill- Enormously. Even more fun than auditing the Serengeti Research Institute and being Director of Tourism in the Turks and Caicos Islands.  Of course, like all booksellers, I love the product and the people it attracts – the book-trade is very much a people business, with authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers all sharing a love of the book.  I found the industry wonderfully supportive: had my grandfather chosen to make cornflakes rather than sell books, I would not have enjoyed taking on the family business nearly as much. I have also enjoyed the challenge of adapting to rapid technological change and the necessary sharpening up of business practices.  And I love the social life, the frequent opportunities to spend relaxation time with friends and acquaintances with whom I share a love of books, a passion instilled in me in childhood.  Earlier in my life, I spent four years as an investment banker. Each week in the book-trade gave me more job satisfaction than the whole of those four years.

How did you end up in the book trade?

Bill- I was born into the Foyle family and spent much of my childhood in the great rambling family-owned bookshop on Charing Cross Road. My aunt Christina Foyle, who by the time I was a teenager making career choices, was the undisputed queen of Foyles, made it plain that she did not want me to work there, so I made my career. After qualifying as a chartered accountant, I lived and worked in Denmark, East Africa, the Arabian Gulf, and the Caribbean.  When Christina Foyle died just before the turn of the century, there was a management vacuum at Foyles. I was by then semi-retired, had time available, so I volunteered, spending the first few months with my head down, trying to get some order into the chaos of Foyles at the time. After a while, I began to engage with our suppliers and began to realise that I was not just working for the family business: I was in the book-trade.

Trevor- By complete error: My career had been in chemicals, detergents, biochemicals, office equipment, and business intelligence systems, but you may have noticed, no sign of books.  In 1993 I was made redundant when Ricoh bought Gestetner, which at the time was very worrying as I had a young family and mortgage to support, but in hindsight, it was the best turning point of my life.  A Private Equity firm, Phildrew Ventures, asked me to take a look at one of their failing businesses, Hammick’s Bookshops, a chain of 25 odd bookshops mainly in south-east England that were losing money and rapidly running out of cash.  I knew nothing about retailing, let alone bookselling, and this was as far from my multinational semi-industrial business experience as you could get. Still, for whatever reason, they saw it differently and also refused to pull the plug on the business as I had recommended.  They backed me, and they backed Hammick’s and thus started my love affair with the book industry.

What would you say was your most significant achievement?

Bill- Playing a significant part in the turnaround of Foyles, from the chaos in which Christina left it to once again one of the finest bookshops in the world, and my involvement in the ten-year project to rehouse it in the Central St. Martins building next door.  I am also quite proud of my participation in the setting up of the Emirates literature festival in Dubai, which came directly from my involvement with Foyles.

Trevor- While I am immensely proud of the teams at Hammick’s and Blackwell’s, my part in the creation of the World Book Day celebration in the UK has given a longer lasting benefit than anything else I’ve achieved in my career.   The booksellers of Barcelona first came up with WBD and sent the BA roses to celebrate in 1996.  I proposed that the industry should start a WBD celebration in the UK, but needed a better mechanic than roses.  I suggested the £1 book (what a daft idea!)- and the £1 book token scheme, which I said should be sent to every school pupil in the country (another crazy idea!).  The level of support from booksellers was overwhelming, and Dillon’s, Books Etc., Waterstones, Sussex Stationers, Blackwell’s, W. H. Smith, and the independents all in support.  The BA took the idea to the PA, and their President Gail Rebuck backed the idea and proposed publishing the special £1 books, which still go on sale each year.  I doubt that WBD would ever have been as successful or have lasted so long without Gail’s leadership.

Was there a particular event or period that challenged you during your time in the industry?

Bill- A? as in ‘one’? You must be kidding! The arrival of Amazon, of course, but also poor terms of trade left over from the cosy world of the NBA, particularly for academic books, which were more than 50% of Foyle’s turnover 20 years ago.  The rapid growth of information technology offering children, embryonic book-buyers, alternatives to books.   As a single event, the London bombings of 7/7/2005 hit us, being central London based; we had grown our annual sales by 50% in the preceding five years and just shown our first operating profit for 20 years, and it was as if we had hit the buffers. Fortunately, London is a wonderfully resilient city, and things soon recovered.

Trevor– I was very fortunate to have joined the book industry when it was enriched with numerous bookselling groups of different sizes, cultures, and retail strategies, in addition to three times the number of independents than exist today. They provided fantastic diversity to readers, publishers, authors, and indeed bookseller careers.  In hindsight, it was the collapse of the Net Book Agreement that sparked the beginning of the end.  Given my background in other sectors, I was not in favour of the NBA and believed that price promotion should be included in booksellers’ marketing toolkits. I also accepted that larger booksellers such as WHS and Waterstones would enjoy more favourable terms overall than say Hammick’s, but did not foresee the discounts offered by supermarkets and online retailers to the consumer.

What would you say to the booksellers or aspiring booksellers of today?

Bill- Good luck!  You won’t get rich, but you will have great job-satisfaction doing a job worth doing. The book is arguably humanity’s single most important invention, and you will be helping get it into people’s hands.  Get to know the people most important to your business, your customers; engage with them, find out their interests, and don’t be afraid to sell to them subtly – it’s what your business is there to do, and if you introduce them to a great new book they will thank you and return.   Also, always remember that you are important customers of the publishers: don’t be overawed by them; they need you and can learn from you what sells and why.  And of course (here speaks the accountant) cash is king. Sales are vanity; profit is sanity.  And when business is quiet, you can always take a few minutes to relax with a good book, essential research if you are to be a good bookseller.

Trevor- We all know that retailing has come under extreme commercial pressure for several years, and many retailers have closed or undergone severe restructuring.  Even before Covid-19, online sales took a bigger slice of the retail cake, growing by a further 20% in 2018 and accounting for 16% of total UK retail sales in 2019, with Amazon alone accounting for 8% of total retail sales and almost 40% of all online sales in the USA.   Ecommerce has not only squeezed retail sales but also squeezed margins.  Many of the failing retailers were too slow to get out of large retail space, invest in effective e-commerce strategies, and create an authentic customer experience in their shops.  However, booksellers have done all of this, which is why I am such a fan of UK booksellers and was so confident they could survive and prosper.