Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Bookselling: Chains vs Independents

As so many of our bookshops are now part of large chains, and the bulk of book buying for those chains is carried out by a central buying office, the stock you see on the shelves has become homogenous and neutral. Stock in an Edinburgh branch of Waterstones is almost identical to stock in the Exeter branch.

Most branches will have a small section for local interest books (by local authors, perhaps, or about local history) but the majority of the titles that they carry will be found in all of their branches.

While I don’t hold any grudges against Waterstones or any other chain (I’ll cheerfully admit that I’ve spent weeks of my life lurking in their stacks), I do worry about the impact that they’ve had on bookselling’s independent sector. While relatively few independent bookstores now remain, thirty years ago they were a feature of almost every high street: each one had its own personality, which was reflected in its stock, and the people who shopped in them. I fondly remember a bookshop in Ealing Broadway (opposite the train station: can anyone else remember it?) where I used to buy short story anthologies, poetry, and experimental fiction, much of which I still own; and another bookshop on Kentish Town high road where twenty years ago I bought all sorts of books from new writers, published by emerging presses. I doubt that any branch of Waterstones would even consider stocking half of those the titles: and yet they’re (almost!) all brilliantly written, and many contain work from newcomers who are now household names.

So now, when ever I go anywhere, I make an effort to find any independent bookshops that I can. Some are a little less organised than Waterstones or Borders; and they don’t usually have much in the way of three-for-twos; but they more than make up for those failings by having staff who can find you the perfect title out of their brilliant range of fascinating books.


Sue Guiney said...

Can I ask a question? I was told that independent bookstores record their sales with someplace other than Nielsen, so that if you are concerned about how many books you have sold, your numbers may not reflect books sold by indie shops. Therefore, I have been told not to care as much about whether your book sells in indie shops or not. As a book buyer, I much prefer independent stores, but as an author counting every sale I've been led to believe that the chains are more important to me. Any ideas on that?

Rod H said...

I wouldn't miss three for two offers. In the last year I've wasted much time failing to find a third book I genuinely wanted and leaving with nothing. Now I cut to the chase. When I want a book, I buy it.

We used to have independent book shops here. We still have quite a few but they are all second-hand.

JP_Fife said...

Ah, independent bookshops. That takes me back. There's not many independent booksellers left here in Fife (St Andrews mainly, but there's a University there ergo a market). The shop I frequented most in Dunfermline was massive for an independent, over two floors if I remember correctly, but it closed down in the late eighties/early nineties. Then there was the SF Bookshop in Edinburgh; at least a half a mile walk away from the train station and a cramped little place but full of all sorts of delights and imports. That's something you don't see much of anywhere nowadays: imports.

Mosher said...

I love 3 for 2s as they've so often encouraged me to discover new authors as I just randomly pick a third book.

If you want soul-less, though, buy books from the likes of Tesco. They're half the recommended cover price so that's more a 2-for-1, but their range is pitifully small. And you can't order anything. But - it's cheap.

You're right on the indy shops. There used to be so many, but it's like small grocers losing out to the likes of Tesco et al. With margins and overheads these days, it must be hard to compete. I can't recall the last time I saw an independent bookshop that wasn't predominantly or purely second hand.

Jean said...

Yes, I love indie bookshops and it's sad that so many have been muscled out by the chains. I must admit I enjoy browsing in the big bookstores as well, but the indies certainly have that special personal touch.

There's a great indie bookshop near where I live, but the owners say they're running at a loss and may have to close down next year.

I support indies as best I can; I don't want them to disappear but feel powerless to stop that happening. It's a sad sign of the times.

Helen P said...

According to the Society of Authors lunch I attended in Liverpool recently the manager of each Waterstones store is allowed to choose between 10% and 30% of the shop's stock themselves so lobby for your local writer, I say!

Mosher said...

I meant to say in my last comment - the staff in Waterstones do seem to know what they're on about and are usually amongst the best shop staff I've encountered. he staff recommendations do seem personal, not chain-led, and they're always helpful.

They also do seem to have one of the better "local" sections out of the chains, too.

I suppose if you're going to be a mass, overbearing giant of a monopoly you may as well actually be good at it.

Unknown said...

Your view is a fairly common one, but I don't think it is correct. I truly do not believe that you could find a better, more varied and interesting range of books than can be found in my branch of the big W. Of course we stock all the popular titles, and yes, we have 3 for 2 promotions (I never understand how having the option to take a free book is seen as an irritating thing), but we also stock many unusual, strange, experimental works. In fact our selections are more varied than my nearest indie bookshop by a long way.

The impulse to champion independent shops is a good one of course, but saying that you will get a better choice is not always true. And if people continue to chuck books into their trolley's at their local supermarkets the time may come when people fondly remember the choice they once had at W's. Supporting your local bookshop can mean shopping at W's rather than buying online at Amazon. Coming into a store, browsing and having the expertise of booksellers available is surely infinitely preferable to staring at a screen and clicking on titles?

You say of indie shops "Some are a little less organised than Waterstones or Borders; and they don’t usually have much in the way of three-for-twos; but they more than make up for those failings by having staff who can find you the perfect title out of their brilliant range of fascinating books." which sounds as if you are saying W's staff can't also find you the perfect title out of our brilliant range of fascinating books! I can assure you that I consider it part of my job to do just that. After all, the reason I work there is because I love books.

Jane Smith said...

Sue, my answer to your question is that I don't know: but I'll try to find someone who might, and get them to add their comments here. Overall, though, I'd try to get as many copies of my books sold as possible no matter where from, because it can only help. While the charts depend on Nielsen, royalty payments depend on the publisher's sales figures--which are usually higher.

Rod, I've found some treasures in the three-for-two tables, so don't discount them; and they do make all the difference to sales figures (I think that Emma Barnes has discussed this on the Snowblog, but can't think where): they're valuable promotional support for writers.

JP, next time you're in Edinbugh have a look at the Fidra Bookshop: it does mainly sell children's books, but it's fabulous by all accounts (and Vanessa, whose shop it is, comments here so we have to be nice!).

Jane Smith said...

Mosher, I'm lucky enough to regularly visit a couple of places with their own independent bookshops: Bakewell, and Much Wenlock. The stock in both shops is fabulous; both towns are too small to support a big chain bookshop, and I wonder if that's why the independent shops are doing well. And while Tesco, Asda and the rest might well have a very limited stock and so on, at least they are getting people to consider books, who might otherwise not. They're not my first choice when buying books, though.

Sara, every time I've seen you discussing bookselling what's clear is your passion for the books you look after (because you do far more than promote and sell them, from what I've seen) and the job that you do. You're fabulous. You seem to me to be an exceptional bookseller: you're proactive and enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and I wish every bookshop was staffed by people like you. I would bet money on your branch of Waterstones having a brilliant stock, and selling a lot of quirky titles; but without several more of you being cloned, that isn't going to be carried over into every branch. And while your store might have a brilliant range of stock most Waterstones--in my opinion, and my experience--don't have the same eclectic mix that I've seen in the independent shops that I visit.

My local branches of Blackwells and Waterstones have staff who do their best to be helpful: but last week when I visited my local (ish) Waterstones and asked where they shelved their short story anthologies, the two members of staff I was talking to looked at me blankly and said they didn't think they sold any of those... I was somewhat disappointed.

That's not to say the staff at the big chains are not as caring as those from the independents, or any less in love with books: just that they do have such a lot of shelf-space to learn about, and so many customers to help. Could the difference rest with the smaller stock levels, do you think? Or the larger levels of core stock?

(And while you're here, would you mind having a look at SueG's question at the top of the comments and answering it if you can? I'd appreciate it, as I'd rather not give a half-cocked answer.)

Sally Zigmond said...

I'm weighing in here to support Sara. I began my post-uni life in a now defunct chain bookshop and latterly for Waterstone's--although I don't now and miss the life hugely.

And yes, whilst each branch has the same promotions and the front of store look alike, you'll find huge variety in the rest of the store. Different towns and cities have different population patterns so what sells in one will not in another. Managers and staff are not head-office robots. (We often disregarded some of the pronouncements from head office if they didn't make sense in our particular store.)

Everyone who worked with me was an enthusiastic (almost obsessional) lover of books. If one of us didn't know the answer to a question, another did. I was hopeless on children's books so I always referred customers with difficult questions to a colleague who knew everything there was to know. And so on.

Those hand-written recommendation slips are absolutely genuine, by the way. I filled in quite a few in my time and always went for something I loved that wasn't mainstream and was duly chuffed if someone bought it because of my endorsement.

You have to love books to sell them. It's a tiring back-breaking job most of the time (wear comfortable shoes) but the love of and knowledge about books will always override the pain!

Next time you're in Waterstone's start a conversation with a member of staff. (Not at Christmas or at the till if there's a long queue or if they've got a huge pile of books in their arms.)

Mosher said...

Sally, I always assumed those recommendations were genuine simply because I never saw a single one repeated between branches!

As for staff dedication etc., you seem to get he same in many games stores such as GameStation, Games Workshop and the like. Also the smaller computer stores where they hire people who know what they're talking about. Mind, this is certainly not the case with certain computer "super"stores but I'm going off-topic here :)

I'd expect that people who love books will go that little extra towards seeking out a job with them - bookshop or library. Also, I don't know what the interview procedure's like at Waterstones. Do they try to hire bibliophiles?

catdownunder said...

Our local indie bookshop (which is excellent) struggles against the big retailers and the internet because Australia has some peculiar (to put it nicely) laws with regard to the sale of books. Books are expensive here and they are even more expensive in the local indie. But the local indie also runs a poetry group, a book discussion group, hosts a knitting group has regular local/state authors sessions, gives talks to local schools and groups etc. They also find the most arcane titles for me and my father and some local academics. In other words they provide more than books. Vanessa at Fidra provides more than books too by all accounts - the cat plans to prowl through that shop when she eventually gets back to Edinburgh.
The end question surely has to be, "Do you just want to buy a book, or do you want to experience something more?" (A choice between instant coffee you make yourself or real coffee served by someone else?)

none said...

Gone. All gone. We have Waterstones, Waterstones #2 (used to be Ottakars) and Waterstones #3.

And there's never any Connie Willis or UK Le Guin on the shelves. Except Passage made a brief appearance a little while ago. Apart from that, zilch.

DOT said...

I so agree with you about independent stores. Whenever I walk into someone's home I tend to scan the bookshelves first - rude, perhaps - but they speak volumes. Independents are the equivalent, reflecting, as they do, the owner's interests and tastes.

lawrenceez said...

Just found this blog. Looks interesting.

I agree. I miss old bookshops and their character.

Vanessa said...

Firstly, thank you to the people who said nice things about us! And yes we do sell mainly children's books but in early September we're opening a bookshop for 'grown-up books' (we kept referring to it as an 'adult bookshop' to differentiate but it sounded smutty) just up the road to run alongside it so this part of Edinburgh will be well-served for bookshops.

And SueG - indie bookshops' sale figures are also tracked by Nielsen if they register with them. We have and our figures are tracked so buying a book from us counts just as much as buying one elsewhere. And as has already been pointed out, your publisher will know how many copies of sold because that's how your royalties are calculated.

Indies can't compete on price and I think it would be a mistake to try. At present we have a book of the month which we discount by 10% and it is a title that at least one of us absolutely loves - unlike the chains it isn't there because a publisher paid us to put it there. We also have a loyalty card - get a stamp each time you spend a tenner and when you have 10 stamps you can exchange it for £5 off the cost of a book. It encourages regular business and that's key to success.

The new shop will stock the big new releases but in general if it's half price in Tesco, or reduced by two thirds by The Book People or Asda are knocking it out for a quid as a loss leader then we're likely to just have one copy tucked away on a shelf in case someone asks for it.

The books that are the most prominently displayed will be the ones we love the most, that we think will appeal to our customers and a bit less predictable. We'll make an exception for big local authors such as Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin but generally I anticipate selling more Murakami than Martina Cole and more Elizabeth David than Nigella Lawson.

We'll be writing a lot more about the new bookshop on our blog over the next few months so do pop over!

Vanessa said...

Sorry, got so enthusiastic about the new shop that I drifted off my point.

Good indie bookshop offer better value than chains because they can provide better customer service, they know their general local market and their individual customers and will go the extra mile.

Waterstone's used to be a great chain but it's being run into the ground and I constantly have customers complaining about it to me. It's a shame but hopefully their loss will be the gain of indies everywhere, not just us!

Unknown said...

Vanessa said "Good indie bookshop offer better value than chains because they can provide better customer service, they know their general local market and their individual customers and will go the extra mile."

This just isn't true.

My branch offers great customer service, knows its local market very well, I mean, really, the staff of Waterstone's is local staff, it's not like we're bussed in from some secret location full of corporate drones. We have many regular customers as well, and also go the "extra mile."

I find it strange, and sad, that booklovers, writers, fellow booksellers, will complain about a bookshop. Personally I was thrilled when a branch of Waterstones opened where I used to live as prior to that the only places I could purchase books were WHSmiths and Woolworths. Far from depriving the locals of their indie book shop it vastly expanded the range of books available to us.

Waterstone's is a business, but so is an indie bookshop, no? Both have to make money in order to continue. I don't understand the hostility.

We stock heaps of local authors books, do events to help support local authors, pride ourselves on our book knowledge, work very hard, love books and read lots ourselves.

Mosher said "The staff recommendations do seem personal, not chain-led, and they're always helpful." and is correct. If I want to recommend a book, then I do, nobody guides or suggests what we highlight, they are personal choices. Just like an Independent.

Vanessa says " but generally I anticipate selling more Murakami than Martina Cole and more Elizabeth David than Nigella Lawson."

Great, and sincerely I do wish her luck, but I already sell way more Murakami than Cole, and plenty of David alongside Lawson. Why the need to put down other bookshops?

And redundancies are happening throughout Waterstones, it's not to be assumed that it will remain on the high street forever without customer support. All those locals employed by the branches will be looking for employment elsewhere.

Sorry Jane, I don't know the answer to Sue G's question.

Thank you Sally Zigmond.

Jane Smith said...

Oh, bugger.

I've upset both Sally Zigmond and Sara with this post and my subsequent glib comment, which wasn't my intention at all. I owe apologies to them both.

Let me try to make this clear, without sticking my feet any further in it if I can: if you read my original post you’ll notice that I didn’t criticise Waterstone’s staff at all: I just pointed out that despite the sometimes-confusing layout of independent bookshops their staff can still manage to find books that might interest their customers. No criticism of Waterstone’s was implied or intended, and I’m sorry that it’s been assumed otherwise.

I do think that there’s a big difference in the stock, and therefore the character, of the independent bookshops, which is consequently reflected in the staff. That’s not to say that they’re any better than the staff at Waterstone’s: they’re just different.

And at the risk of sounding like a retail survey, I think that the whole “shopping experience” is different when you use an independent bookshop, and I wonder why that is: I suspect it has a lot to do with the differences in the stock that the two types of shop carry, and the different business models that they operate under. But that’s for a separate blog post.

I hope that’s clarified my meaning a little, and I send virtual cookies to both Sara and Sally in the hope that they’ll forgive me for my clumsiness.

Audrey said...

Oops, slightly rubbish choice of generalisation here. I've not visited Waterstones (or anything else) in Exeter, but I do know the Edinburgh Ws branches well.

In terms of the stock being 'almost identical'... I'm guessing that Ws in Exeter doesn't devote large sections of the store (including Childrens) exclusively to Scottish writing? Ws marketing and core stock must be managed on something of a regional basis, as Scotland definitely has its own marketing team and buyers based up here.

I'm not writing this as some big celebration of Waterstonion Scottishness, but I just think it's an example of how Ws is actually more reactive to its customers than the Tesco approach assumed here.

David Dittell said...


I was in New York City last weekend and stopped by Bluestockings, a left-wing bookstore ("anarchist," according to the internet, but I noticed prices and a checkout counter) and was really impressed with how many books they had that I've absolutely never heard of and would never otherwise be exposed to.

One of the things I love at independent booksellers is the zines -- a whole different animal, but something I'll definitely not find anywhere else.