Blackwell's David Prescott is aiming to revolutionise the way the company sells textbooks and overhaul the bookseller's website in his first months as the chain's new m.d.
In a dramatic head office reshuffle last week, Prescott was promoted from business development director to m.d. of Blackwell's bookstore and online business. At the same time, the position of c.e.o. at the company was axed, with c.e.o. Andrew Hutchings made redundant from that role. Blackwell will be led under two separate "business units", with Hutchings retained to lead the library supply arm until a new m.d. is appointed.
Prescott, who has been a Blackwell employee for 16 years, said two of his main objectives would be to lead the company back to profitability in the next two years, to allow employees to eventually take a stake in the business, and to continue along the path of staff taking more accountability and responsibility for their own branches. He also said that in a challenging high street bookselling market it was "absolutely critical" that the company was focused on meeting the demands of students. Prescott said: "We need to get closer to our customers, particularly in student bookselling."
To this end, Blackwell has been trialling a Textbook Rental Programme in its Manchester University and Oxford Brookes campus stores, which it hopes to roll out across all 70 Blackwell locations in time for peak student trading season in September.
Under the scheme, students rent a textbook at a reduced cost for a period of either 30, 60 or 90 days at a time. There is no limit to how many times the book could be rented, and if and when the r.r.p. has been paid through rental payments the student is allowed to keep the book.
Prescott said the trials had gone well, but some publishers, which he would not name, are yet to give their full permission for the initiative because of potential complications caused to royalty calculations.
A debate has risen about what would happen in the hypothetical situation of a textbook being rented out multiple times to different students, which may result in Blackwell receiving money beyond the r.r.p. of a book. Prescott said: "Publishers recognise this is an important model and are collaborating with us to make sure it works. Some are on board and others are working out the economics of it."
Prescott added that textbook rental was a service students wanted, and he was "absolutely confident" it would be rolled out. He said: "There are a lot of times that students need books for a short period of time. Buying a book outright for £30, when all they need is one detail, is not realistic for a lot of them."
The retailer also plans to overhaul its website in time for the new term in September. Along with a refreshed appearance, Prescott hopes to combine booksellers' expertise, knowledge and recommendations to attract readers to the site, as he feels this a key reason customers visit Blackwell shops.
The bookseller is also having discussions with publishers to customise textbooks to suit individual courses across different authors and publishers to better meet students' needs.
Prescott also called on publishers to find "progressive ways" of making sure their books are showcased in bookshop windows and to ensure the future of high street academic bookselling. "It means commitments on both sides," he said: "If we do not work in partnership it means the industry will face major challenges in the high street."