Special agents

<p>Danuta Kean</p><p> It has never been tougher to be an independent general bookseller. Customer expectations are high, competition tough and margins tight. Competing against chain and supermarket rivals on discount is impossible. Independents need to be creative if they are to hold their ground against the biggest players on the high street.</p><p>One way in which they have fought back is by specialising. Specialisation offers savvy retailers the opportunity to supply titles the chains cannot stock, and to build a reputation for quality, expert service and range.</p><p>But the market is no pushover for specialists. Many have closed--overwhelmed by the reach of Amazon or because they catered for a niche too small to sustain them. Yet many not only survive, but thrive and have created solid reputations that have spread around the world. Could specialisation be the key to survival?</p><p>Product perfect</p><p>"Passion is an absolute necessity if you specialise," says Peter Donaldson of Red Lion Books in Colchester. Though Red Lion is a general bookseller, it has built up a strong reputation for science fiction and children's bookselling that draws customers from East Anglia and London.</p><p>These customers, says Donaldson, expect a high level of product knowledge from their booksellers. "They feel encouraged and confident about shopping with you if their knowledge is reflected back at them by the person behind the counter." For Red Lion, specialising was one way of competing against a local W H Smith and Waterstone's able to offer bestsellers at deep discounts. "We don't have to sell the deeply discounted books on offer in the chains," Donaldson explains. "But we can sell in substantial quantities imported hardback sci fi novels that can't be found elsewhere."</p><p>Doug McLean, managing director of the Forest Bookshop in Coleford, is a good example of how a bookseller's interest in a subject can lead to a million pound turnover. As well as a general bookshop in the Forest of Dean, McLean runs a successful business selling and publishing books about deafness, from guides to sign language to academic texts on hearing impairment. It was a niche he spotted when trying to find titles on the subject for himself.</p><p>"Passion for the subject is an absolute necessity," he says. He believes independent booksellers are better placed to specialise than chains because passion is what usually drew them into the business in the first place. "We are not unique in finding an area that we want to go into in more depth. Lots of independent booksellers went into bookselling for that very reason," he explains. "They love books, and some subjects better than others, and they love providing information and help to customers."</p><p>Passion is also necessary, says Paul Mays of transport specialist Motorail Books in Bournemouth, for another reason: the bookseller needs to be completely familiar with what is in stock. "You need to have a specialist knowledge of what you are selling and what to recommend to your customers. I have customers coming in and asking what I can recommend, and my recommendation has as much influence as a media review would in the general trade because the customer knows I am an enthusiast as well."</p><p>For successful specialists perhaps the hardest part is balancing passion for the product with bookselling savvy, as Rosie Kindersley, proprietor of Books for Cooks in Notting Hill, points out. "Staffing is an issue for specialists, because you need people with bookselling skills and in-depth knowledge. It is not enough to be a good bookseller. That is a bit of a challenge when recruiting, so we tend to find most of our staff among our customers," she says.</p><p>Kindersley's customers are not just looking for recipe books: they range from serious foodies to food technicians and require anything from colouring guides to exotic cuisine. "It isn't enough to be passionate about books, our booksellers have to be passionate about the subject too, and able to answer all sorts of obscure questions." The emphasis on product knowledge is vital for specialists, not least because many customers turn to them when disappointed by general bookshops. "It does mean that we have to be more proactive and seek out the unusual titles and publishers that our customers expect to be able to find here and not elsewhere," Donaldsonsays.</p><p>It also means that specialists are prepared to look further afield for titles and cannot rely on the same databases or wholesaler guides that the general trade uses. Most niche booksellers keep close links with the worlds into which they sell, from being part of emailing lists in the UK and abroad and reading relevant magazines, to networking to find out what the word on the street is about must- have titles. It can be, says Rosie Kindersley, the nearest bookselling comes to detective work and is one of the joys of specialising.</p><p>Connected retail</p><p>The rise of the internet has without doubt been a godsend for specialist booksellers. Many do more business online than through their shop. "Mail order is a very big part of our business," Geoff Saunders, an editor at French's Theatrical Bookshop, says. The London bookshop celebrates its 175th anniversary next year, and is unusual not just in what it stocks--every book one could ever need on plays and their staging. French's has branched into play publishing and performance rights. It is a first stop for amateur and professional theatre people. "A lot of people come to us at the beginning of a production because they can find everything they need for a production," Saunders says. As part of the mail order service, French's produces catalogues and leaflets about available rights. These are tailored: a theatre company that has previously performed adaptations of 1930s crime novels will be informed of performance rights for a new Agatha Christie play.</p><p>French's notes are a perfect illustration of how specialist booksellers need to place themselves at the heart of the community they serve. In the small, usually connected communities in which they operate, word of mouth--negative as well as positive--spreads quickly. Good service is rewarded with positive PR that makes them a destination for aficionados. This was the philosophy behind the launch of Sports Books Direct in the early 1990s.</p><p>Founder and m.d. Charles Frewin was adamant that the new company should not have a bricks and mortar outlet, and began with off-the-page sales through cricket and football magazines. "We approached what we did as responding to the community we serve," Frewin explains. A former bookseller, he was impressed by the way bookshops respond to customers and wanted Sports Books Direct to replicate that service.</p><p>Before launching, the company researched what customers wanted not just in terms of titles, but in terms of service. It led the company to strive hard to differentiate itself from book clubs and not to sell mailing lists. Though it developed a web presence, Frewin is adamant that it is not an internet bookseller. "The majority of our customers want to speak to us in person," he says. A recent deal with News International has placed Sports Books Direct in a unique position. It is expanding from sports to general books, supplying titles under NI's Books First brand through catalogues distributed in the Sunday Times. Frewin believes that by proving itself in the specialist field, it was able to win the NI contract.</p><p>The company also recently bought high street specialist Sportspages, which has a branch on Charing Cross Road in London and one in Manchester. Though Sports Books Direct did not need a presence on the high street, Frewin says there is enough synergy between the businesses to make the deal worthwhile. "Sportspages is a great name and a very good brand," he says of the attraction of the bookselling business. "We felt it was worth preserving."</p><p>Differentiated stores</p><p>The failure of Sportspages to remain independent reflects the downside of specialist bookselling. The perils of having a niche market are that the niches can be unsustainable--through an ageing customer base or the vagaries of fashion--or become mainstream. The latter means that the niche attracts the chains, which can offer books at a deeper discounts than the specialists.</p><p>This happened to the mind, body and spirit market, says Anthony Cheke of the Inner Bookshop in Oxford. The shop was founded 20 years ago, since when the genre has boomed and the chains and supermarkets encroached into its territory. As a result, Cheke says he avoids those titles serialised in the Bible of new age-lite, the Daily Mail. "If a book is being massively promoted in the Mail customers will not come here to buy it, because they will find it cheaper in W H Smith. It is a market we avoid," he says. In part this is because the shop is located away from the busy town centre, away from passing trade. The Inner Bookshop is a destination store for MBS aficionados, not dilletantes.</p><p>Becoming a destination shop is at the heart of being a successful specialist, says Books for Cooks' Rosie Kindersley. "Specialist bookshops are able to create a wow factor for those who travel to their stores," she says. "To have that impact in a general bookshop you need huge space. Customers come in here and say they didn't know there were so many cookery books available. It is like Aladdin's cave: full of wonders on the subject they love." </p>