What 15 years at Foyles taught me about the future of bookselling

What 15 years at Foyles taught me about the future of bookselling

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. 

Here are just a few of the lessons I learned in the process. 

The importance of good design cannot be underestimated.

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. 

We spent and huge amount of time looking at these details for our flagship, rolling out elements of our design to our regional stores.  At the time of the flagship build, it occurred to me that in the book industry there is always the danger that we can end up focusing on the content of the book over everything else. But this is not how readers first encounter a book. Readers discover new books amongst a sea of information, through all kinds of different media.  Even when they step into a bookshop each book has to compete with others, and it is easy for them to be lost in the noise. Curation is something we talk a lot about these days, but this does not just mean picking out a selection of titles and putting them on a table. It also involves thinking about the environment in which these titles sit and how customers will discover them.    

Booksellers' roles have changed - and that can feel tough. 

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. 

Creating such a democratic culture is of course the key to success in a world where no one needs to actually enter a bookshop to purchase a book.  It becomes the point of difference to sitting on the sofa and ordering at home. Currently conversations still offer up possibilities that are overlooked by algorithms; the chance to discover new things you would have never considered looking at. In the resurgence of independent bookshops, you see this behaviour on a daily basis. It is how they survive in today’s challenging market.    

But remember that this much discussed idea of the bookshop or library as cultural centre has to go beyond just being stimulating, friendly and open, for these things alone do not create sales.  All good design and dialogues have to end up with a ringing of the till for the business to survive.  You have to sell something more than just yourself, and this mentality should be foremost in your mind as you pull your product and business together.

It's harder than before to make book-buying feel compelling. 

So many things now feel like they are always in reach.  Using google earth I can visit almost any street of major cities on the planet. I can search for products worldwide and get them sent to my home. This means that when I am in a shop I might feel that as the item is available online, I won’t buy it now, I will think about it, do some more research; maybe it is cheaper elsewhere.  This goes beyond the traditional concern of showrooming, where customers are actively looking at prices and ideas for comparison with the intention of ordering them online. It is more a casual mind-set, almost an air of complacency; a lack of urgency when the customer chances upon a product that sparks interest. In the past, where they may have bought the product, they now wait. 

Online retailers understand this psychology too well, and so increasingly refine and make their till processes as simple as possible – removing the obstacles that stand in the way of making the purchase.  It is the beauty of one click ordering, Amazon Dash and all the AI hubs that are being developed for our homes.  Other retailers and brands have built genuine scarcity into their business models, to ensure the customer feels compelled to buy.  Unfortunately books suffer from being an item with an international product code and an incredibly long shelf life.  So we come back to design of our physical spaces again, trying to ensure that the environment is stimulating, the product is compellingly presented, and the experience of making the purchase is rewarding enough to make it worth the visiting the shop.

The value of reading has changed. 

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. 

This is not easy, as browsing and reading requires more effort than many other visual pursuits - which is in fact part of the reason that it is ultimately so much more rewarding. The difficulty of clearly expressing the intrinsic value of reading and buying from bookshops is compounded by the diversity of our customers’ needs and the customers themselves.

Print books and physical bookshops are more important than ever.

So, not surprisingly, I would like to suggest that physical books, and buying books in a book shop, is critical for the health of the industry.  Digital sales and sales of ebooks are lucrative and vital for publishing, but once an electronic device is open, you are immediate competing with many other potential distractions. If reading a book is more challenging, then easier and more immediate pursuits are far more seductive. I can’t help but feel if you are trying to make a case for the wonders of reading you need a vehicle that supports it, that gives the efforts of authors and all those involved to bring the book to market a little monument that reflects the hard work.  Physical books fit that bill.  As I say to my sons: when you hold a book, you are holding someone’s head in your hands.   

Even if all of this can be dismissed as aesthetics, in a world where the internet of things brings convenience and increasingly personalised suggestions, the effort of going into a bookshop, finding a book, buying it, carrying it and then reading it, looks to me like a refreshing change. A cheaper, more democratic experience than going on a retreat or taking up a short course to educate yourself and give yourself a break.  The small effort that is required is the key element that delivers the greater sense of well-being. I have had many memorable experiences buying something in a shop, but cannot recall many lifechanging clicks made while buying on the internet.  Holding a book in your hand as you sit, absorbing the thoughts of another human being through the medium of print, seems to me up there as an experience with enjoying fine wine or a meal. 

Please understand that this is not an attempt to hark back to some golden time, when books were books.  This is not an apology for reading on paper; I fully embrace and enjoy the digital as well as the physical.  Indeed, for me, the beauty of the current state of affairs is that we have the chance to rediscover what a physical book is really worth.