The Book People’s new c.e.o. Claire Bayliss lays out a fresh strategy for the company in our Lead Story, aimed at restoring vigour to a business that was once a major player in the trade, but which has dimmed significantly in the past few years.
A decade ago, under Ted Smart and Seni Glaister, The Book People thrived with a business model focused firmly on discounted prices, reaching a distinct market by going directly into the workplace and schools. While authors and editors were often unhappy at the impact of its slashed prices on author earnings, and on the perceived value of new titles, sales directors were pleased by The Book People’s firm sale terms and its ability to get to customers who didn’t ordinarily go into bookshops.
But the business faltered and, in the years since its acquisition by private equity firm Endless in 2014, has become much less visible. Bayliss, an experienced marketeer, now intends to reverse that, with the help of a rebrand and advertising push—including a TV campaign—plus a number of other measures.
In general, the landscape for high-discount retailing has become much tougher over recent times, not just because of Amazon, but also because of increased competition from a range of players such as The Works, CostCo and T K Maxx, plus budget supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl. Meanwhile a surge in book production costs has put pressure on prices, leading to sometimes "brutal conversations", publishers say, citing occasions when they have had to walk away from deals, because books cannot be provided at the unit prices some special sales outfits are asking for. Some have withheld big brands, meaning the range of titles on offer has suffered.
Bayliss says that, at The Book People, books must still be at accessible price points, but "stupidly cheap will erode the value of the product, and that is the last thing we want". Rather than "cheap", the overriding message will be curation, always a strength for The Book People, which was never at the books-by-the-yard end of special sales. One step likely to be of particular appeal to publishers will be a big increase in the number of Book Buses going into schools: a very welcome additional route into a market where Scholastic is a dominant force.
High street blues
Everyone will be hoping that The Book People can successfully re-carve its niche in the market, and as the industry goes into an autumn where the outlook is probably more uncertain than it has been at any time in our careers, it’s important that all retailers, not just The Book People, are on the front foot.
A good reason, then, for the Booksellers Association to call—as it did this week, alongside 50 other retailers—for Boris Johnson’s new government to put business rate reform at the heart of his economic policy, and urgently. The high street will have enough to contend with in the months ahead without struggling under the cosh of a palpably unfair tax system.