On Sainsbury’s: a defence

"Judge not lest ye be judged." I never thought the Bible would ever have anything applicable to my life, but this week my fellow Bookseller Industry Awards judges and I have certainly been put under scrutiny. Our decision to give Sainsbury’s the prize for the General or Chain Bookselling Company of the Year Sponsored by Martina Cole has been subject to controversy on this site, a not inconsiderable bit of Twitter ire and even wailing and hand-wringing in the national press.    

On this site alone, comments range from "Sainsbury’s win sits a little uncomfortably to me" to "it’s a totally ridiculous farce" to the rather apocalyptic "if anybody wants to mark the final demise of the stockholding book trade do so with this award".

We welcome the debate, of course, and love your comments be they for or against.

However, as with all the awards, we (in addition to myself and Orange Prize-founder Kate Mosse, the retail judges included The Bookseller editor-in-chief Neill Denny, former Borders boss David Roche, marketing consultant Damian Horner and retail analyst Paul Smiddy) thought long and hard before coming up with a winner. No category had a run-away winner, but there was no "Carmen Callil moment"—others on the shortlist had their champions, but in the end we collectively agreed that Sainsbury’s was the worthy winner.

Before getting fully into the reasons, there needs to be some context about the awards and the criteria. Since last year’s outing, our awards are the combination of The Bookseller Retail Awards and the old Trade Nibbies. When The Bookseller took over running both awards, we had to rein back the number of categories for logistical reasons (we currently have 17). The General or Chain category, therefore, is the combination of the old General Retailer gong (basically supermarkets, multiples like W H Smith and in the first two years of the award, internet retailers) and the High Street Retailer (chain specialist bookshops). Thus it does create some strange bedfellows, as we see with this year’s shortlist: Asda, Foyles, Waterstone’s, WHS and Sainsbury’s.   

We were limited to the timeframe of the calendar year 2010, and in the instance of full disclosure here is the criteria:

Judges will be looking for evidence of successful and committed book retailing, demonstrated through a clear strategy:

Overall excellence in-store and online environments.
You should demonstrate a clear understanding of who your customer is and how you have met their needs.
Operational expertise and successful innovation in areas such as buying, returns, and range management.
Attention will be paid to financial results such as margin growth, profit, turnover and like-for-like performance.

Now, these are rather broad-brush, but they have to be, given that boutique chains, high street multiples and supermarkets can enter the award. Sainsbury’s, even if you dispute whether they are a "real bookseller" or not (of which more below), ticks all the boxes. Successful and committed book retailing through a clear strategy: they rolled out book departments into more shops in 2010, and now have close to 300 book departments (more outlets than Waterstone’s). Overall excellence: The only supermarket to have books growth, and outperformed WHS and Waterstone’s in terms of growth. Customers: 30% rise in annuals sales by targeting parents and grandparents, plus an expanded book club. Operational expertise: greatly increased range and ramped up website. Financials: 33% up in value up on 2009, when the TCM contracted by 3.25%.  

Tick, tick, tick, tick and tick. Whatever you think about Sainsbury’s, it is absolutely inarguable that in 2010 it greatly increased its book business, expanded book departments across its estate and made books a bigger part of its portfolio. I will not get into the specifics of why we didn’t give the award to the others, for the obvious reason that most of the deliberations must remain confidential. But in the end it came down to a three-horse race with Sainsbury’s eventually coming out on top.   

Is Sainsbury’s a "real bookseller"? Well, no—if you mean that "real bookshops" are only confined to stores were the staffers banter about Joyce to tweedy pipe-smoking academics amongst the stacks. We as judges, and at The Bookseller in general, unfortunately have to live in the real world and reflect on what is happening on the ground: where the retail market has changed irrevocably and players like Sainsbury’s are an immovable part of the landscape. A part of the landscape that does still largely serve a certain part of the book-buying public—let’s call it the Katie Price end—who are uncomfortable going into a Waterstone’s and other "real booksellers".   

Are Sainsbury’s "profiteers"? Well that may be a tad strong, but they are after the bottom line, no doubt. But, again, this is the new bookselling reality, and Sainsbury’s are not dissimilar from many of the people that are now in the game and who the trade has to deal with, from Steve Jobs to Larry Page and Sergey Brin to Jeff Bezos.  

On a personal note, I am a books person. I had 16 years experience as a bookseller, bookshop manager and sales rep before I came to The Bookseller. I shop almost exclusively in indie bookshops, have never bought a book in a supermarket, and even try to avoid them when I buy food. Yet even I recognise that we would be misguided in our duty as judges and on The Bookseller if we ignored these parts of the trade—in an award I will re-emphasise that is open to supermarkets and multiples as well as "real booksellers".

This may have escaped some commentators’ attention, but the Net Book Agreement is long gone, discounting a real part of the industry, and the internet and digital are a growing part of the pie. Yes, all of these factors have unfortunately led to a lot of pain for many booksellers. Yet, to carp against Sainsbury’s winning the award is a stale 20th-century complaint; frankly, indies and bricks and mortar booksellers have to move on from the complaints and figure out how to survive and thrive in the market as it stands, not some sort of bookselling utopia, which probably never existed (Orwell’s 1937 essay Bookshop Memories shows how today’s concerns are not new).  

And the inference that The Bookseller does not reflect "real booksellers" in our awards is asinine—a spit in the face to Geogina Hanratty and Micha Solana (Young Booksellers of the Year), Zool Verjee (Manager), Tales on Moon Lane (Children’s Indie), Waterstone’s (Children’s Bookseller), and the five regional winners of the Independent Bookseller of the Year, overall winner Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights and the highly commended Gutter Bookshop and Mainstreet Trading Company.   

And to Foyles, for that matter, which we the judges voted as last year’s General and Chain Bookselling Company of the Year. Is it like Sainsbury’s not a "real bookseller" either? I’m not sure; last year only two people commented on our awards story, none to congratulate Foyles on its win.  

Part of being on The Bookseller is you do have the advantage of 153 years of book trade history. I have found the first instance of the phrase "death of the book trade" in a letter in our archives from 1885—the overproduction of novels was going to ruin bookselling, apparently. The writer was wrong, and I suspect Sainsbury’s deserved win will not bring the trade down either.