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Bookspeed: full speed ahead
15.07.11 | Roger Tagholm
When you've got the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as your unpaid publicists, it does your business no harm. Kingsley Dawson, co-founder and chairman of Bookspeed, the Edinburgh-based supplier to the gift and heritage market which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, won't say which of his accounts the couple has helped, but admits that the media coverage of the royals has been very good for Bookspeed's bottom line.
"One account is hugely up on last year," says the 60-year-old who has just stepped up to the chairman position and brought in Gary Weston, whose background includes Sky and Yellow Pages, as m.d. "In fact, it does seem as if large heritage accounts in general are doing very well. This may be because of the success of their own marketing, or it may be because people aren't going abroad as much because of the recession. We're always trying to read the market. Certainly, the exchange rate favours visits to the UK—our bestseller at the moment is a guide in Russian."
Bookspeed has some 2,000 active accounts, roughly split between Scotland and the rest of the UK. It supplies all the leading heritage sites in Scotland and the vast majority of cathedrals, independent castles and stately homes throughout England, including some very well-known sites.
It is an unusual operation in that it is not a wholesaler although, like a wholesaler, it does offer a one-stop shop solution. Where Bookspeed differs is that it is as much about creating demand as responding to it. "What we offer is a free consultancy service. We understand our customers—we work very closely with them and talk to them about their business. We find out about their operation and the story they're trying to tell. We'll talk about the activities or exhibitions they have coming up, and then we'll propose a relevant range that will change through the seasons."
A stately home in Kent will have a different market to a castle on the west coast of Scotland or a gift shop in Cardiff. Bookspeed's challenge is in finding "a range that complements each retailer's profile. The customers in our locations aren't necessarily traditional book-buyers. We talk a lot about visual impact. In our market, size and colour can be as important as content—even more so sometimes. Very frequently you have to dispense with the idea that 'you can't judge a book by its cover'—our titles are invariably competing with tea towels, aprons, pens: the covers have got to stand out."
All in the family
Clearly, their formula works because Bookspeed's own story is one of success. It has survived where other specialist suppliers have failed. Dawson and his life (and business) partner Annie Rhodes met at the distributor Scottish & Northern Books in the early Eighties. When that company disbanded, they took over its Edinburgh offices and began trading as Bookspeed—then a conventional paperback wholesaler—in 1986. The key shift came in 1991 when they bought Carrick Books, the John Smith-owned wholesaler supplying the general retail and heritage market.
"We took on two of their staff and one of them, Morris Harrison, did so much to develop that side of the business for us. Sadly for us, Morris is now enjoying a healthy retirement, but we would not be where we are today without the work he put in."
The heritage side of the business grew until the company stopped calling itself a wholesaler and concentrated solely on the gift and heritage market. Three years ago, Dawson's son Lewis joined the company and looking back today, Dawson, whose background before entering the book trade was in community work with children and nursery teaching, says he can't quite believe 25 years has passed. "We had no idea we were starting a family business at the time. It was more a case of 'that seems an interesting idea, let's do that'."
Bookspeed has a turnover of £6m, and its 38 staff include Matthew Perren, still known to many publishers from his long years at Waterstone's, and Fiona Stout, who came to Bookspeed from the jewellery trade. Weston's remit is to expand the business and develop new revenue streams. The company is looking to publish something itself this autumn, and is to explore other original initiatives.
"You have to respond to a changing market and be nimble," concludes Dawson. "I'm still going to retain some customers myself, but I'm also going to become a benign presence in the background and let them get on with it."