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Last of the handsellers

On a trip to the Book People's Godalming headquarters it is impossible to avoid stumbling across numbers, each more jaw-dropping than the last. This cute little suede--covered Collins mini dictionary? Over 180,000 copies sold. A special edition of Michael Rosen's We're Going On a Bear Hunt? 200,000. This classic Jamie Oliver cookbook? Try 470,000.

On it goes. The total value of the books going into the Book People warehouse in the week before October 2007? £9.5m (the lorries caused gridlock in Bangor). The number of catalogues printed last year? 40 million. Over-riding all these are two figures: 20 (the years since the company was set up around Ted Smart's kitchen table), and £100m (the turnover the group should hit in 2008, taking on former rivals Index Books and the Puffin Book Club).

For many years these kind of figures were the closely-guarded secret of The Book People's agents and publishers' special sales managers. But the business has gradually been ushered into the limelight, culminating in the 2007 Bookseller Retail Awards, where it won the Direct to Consumer Bookselling Company of the Year and Smart was honoured with the RHG Award for Outstanding Contribution to Bookselling.

Defying the critics

There are several factors behind this acceptance. As discounting has escalated across retail, TBP has been quietly raising its own prices: from not being able to sell anything over £5, it can now shift hardbacks for £7.99, box sets for £15, and even a photographic tome for £50. After years of reiterating its arguments, TBP has finally got on top of its bitterest critics (more of which later). But mostly it is because it has shown consistent growth while other book retail sectors have struggled. This has led to the curious position where TBP is one of the last forces truly committed to handselling, with reps going out there every day and shifting piles of books to people who didn't know they wanted them.

Smart pairs a "cologne and cufflinks" salesman style with a ruddy-faced, matey charm. His co-founder and constant companion Seni Glaister is charming but icily focused (an awe-struck Observer journalist once described her as "bewitching, in a knockout, sexist kind of way"). They make a compelling double act: he completes her sentences, but is marshalled by her, and humbly defers to her for affirmation of all facts. This is planned to be an interview with Smart, but he keeps dragging her into the conversation, while she incessantly checks the day's sales figures via her Blackberry. Then when she does have to duck out of the room she looks nervous that he'll make a gaffe.

How they started is now publishing folklore. In 1988, Smart—a former Hong Kong policeman, salesman and photographer—was sacked from Colour Library, where he'd set up a fast-turnaround publishing list. He'd heard about a business in Canada selling books to people who didn't usually read, and wondered if it could work here. He asked family friend Glaister, then 21 with a young baby, to help him out.

His motivation? Desperation, he says. "We had our families to look after. That's why you never forget all the people here who have invested so much—they have to trust you. One thing done in the wrong way, you deserve everything you get."

The model was simple. Reps would go door-to-door—offices, factories, hospitals—dropping samples of 12 to 14 books, then calling back a week later to collect orders. They'd work under their own steam and be paid only commission—which soon encouraged them to take on their own staff. "All we're doing is encouraging the ones down the bottom of the ladder to move up and up," Smart says. "Some of these guys have been with us since the start. We thought they'd burn out but we've changed them into business people." Some are reputed to earn over £250,000.

The other side of the model was to bargain hard with publishers. Booksellers complain that such prices- are possible because publishers view TBP as a "run-on" deal, additional to the trade print run (which bears the full overheads and royalties). "That's the truth, but we are taking large quantities and every one at firm sale," Smart responds. And he maintains that some choices still won't pay off: "at Christmas we had one 80,000-copy punt that didn't work."

Smart has spent 20 years winning such arguments: "We have talked our way into it because we believe in it. We were criticised heavily in the early days, but you will always be criticised in our industry for doing something new. We'll fight to get more rights and get the best books. But a publisher won't deal with us on a title if he's not happy—it's his right not to sell to us."

And, boy, can he cut a deal. Ten years ago he spotted that a stunning Godalming mansion, complete with 26 acres and a lake, was on the market for £1.4m. Surveyors found a crack in a side wall, so he haggled the price down to £565,000. A few weeks after they moved in he got talking to an elderly neighbour, who revealed that the fissure was caused by a Second World War bomb rather than subsidence. The property is now worth at least £5m.

He's a great raconteur and an unashamed name dropper—peppering his stories with references to Gordon [Brown], Alex [Ferguson] and Delia [Smith]. A typical Smart story features a surprise garden party thrown by Penguin's senior management for TBP. "John [Makinson'], Helen [Fraser], and Peter [Field] arrived with Carluccio's hampers and champagne. Then Jamie [Oliver] surprised everyone by dropping in."

Smart and Glaister have a hotline to such people, a privilege rarely accorded to rival retailers. Glaister guesses that this is due to the fact today's publishing bosses were the junior staff who dealt with them in the early years—she recalls Gail Rebuck of Ebury paying a visit. "We go to all the buyers' dinners, where we are almost the only constants."

TBP has regularly picked up flak from authors and agents, angry at its rock-bottom royalties. "Some [of those] are authors whose books we've never even asked to carry," Glaister drily observes. "We don't actually set any royalties—that's up to publishers and agents. But even if it is low, say 15p on a copy, we take an average of 20,000 units. So the author receives an additional £3,000."

Some also partly blame TBP for the woes of the high street, but Smart is having none of it. "People out there want to buy books—and the public will respond to booksellers if it's an enjoyable experience. By going with the three-for-twos and discounts the chains were capitulating to the supermarkets. Coming from me this is very rich, but our business is [value-driven] and theirs is not. So why did they alter their model at a critical time?"

TBP reps now call on 35,000 UK offices, and the catalogue is blanket distributed through the press, so the idea they only reach non-book buyers can't hold up. Instead, he points to frequency. "They only get a visit from us every six to seven weeks, so don't tell me I'm competing with bookshops."

Buying tonight

Remarkably, as the empire has expanded, Smart and Glaister have kept personal control of buying and even writing catalogue copy. They have a finely-tuned nose for how many copies they can shift of any particular title, and which channel it suits. They know which covers make an impact, which toys enhance a book, how to play on parents' aspirations, how to sell poetry to call-centre staff. They pair this with a layered testing process, in which books that shift are re-ordered and rolled out by more agents.

The flimsier Ted Smart special editions are increasingly a thing of the past. "I don't want to touch average things—I love good things," Smart expounds. "Our customers now expect a lot more." He cites Nigella Express, which TBP noted was overtaking perennial festive favourite Jamie Oliver at an early stage. "I don't care what [Nigella] does or doesn't do on TV. Random produced a superb book—that's what counts."

They've almost become publisher themselves, working with sales and production teams to create new products from backlist—a Thomas Story Library or Mrs Beeton box-set, tins of Puffin Classics audiobook CDs, a Charlie & Lola bag filled with hardbacks. "It's about giving people another reason to buy the book," Glaister says. "If the format works, we tend to milk it and milk it."

This leads to another hobby horse—how different TBP's bestsellers are to other retailers. One of their lead fiction authors is M C Beeton, creator of the Agatha Raisin detective series; titles in their Christmas 2007 top 10 included Templar's A Felt Fun World of Wildlife and Jennifer Worth's East End memoir Call the Midwife (Weidenfeld). Small publishers are given equal opportunity—TBP shifted £1m of Quadrille's books in 2007, for example.

If TBP sales were recorded by BookScan, the bestseller charts would be transformed, giving them more influence to make or break authors. "Every now and then, if people are giving us a hard time we threaten it—but I don't think we need or want to exploit that power," Glaister muses.

'It's not my money'

What has been their lowest ebb? The 2003 postal strike, which cost the business £6m. The best time? They'd never admit it, but surely in 2002, when Scholastic US paid £12m for a 15% stake—the cash was wired to Smart's personal bank account: "I've still got the receipt in my briefcase." But he quickly adds that he sunk millions back into the company to cover the Royal Mail woes. "It's not my money, it's everybody's money."

Smart has the lifestyle—the Mercedes 500SL, the Knightsbridge pied-à-terre, the villa in the south of France. Surely- it is time to retire? "No—if I gave it up I'd lose so much of my life. And we've still got too much to do." Of course, they do much worthy work now: there's the 10% of sales donated to hospitals (amounting to £1.5m last year), the Channel 4 children's literacy roadshows, the Red House Children's Book Award.

Very rarely does the grin break and you get a glimpse of Smart's steelier side. After acquiring rival Index, its boss Sir Roger Martin had apprently been expecting an ongoing role. Smart invited him out to lunch, and asked him where he was going on holiday. Sir Roger said he was off on his yacht; Smart cheerily advised him to "keep on sailing".

Both Smart and Glaister are wary of becoming too cosily ensconsed in the book industry's bosom. With relish, she recalls some dissent in the air when they took the stage at The Bookseller awards. "We're not completely mainstream—there was still a little ripple of anxiety. We like that: it keeps us on edge."