Rachel Russell: "I think if you can get a £1 voucher into the hands of 14 million kids, it's a brilliant initiative."

Rachel Russell: "I think if you can get a £1 voucher into the hands of 14 million kids, it's a brilliant initiative."

Rachel Russell and I meet at the Book Industry Conference where the talk is about bookaholics, reinvigorating backlist sales and pan-industry initiatives. The last subject is something that Russell, W H Smith's business director for books, is set to experience first hand. She becomes vice-chairman of World Book Day in 2010, taking over as chair in 2011.

She says that World Book Day shows what publishers and retailers can do when they co-operate. "It came from a joint endeavour and if we could get something else that is as worthy and commercially successful as World Book Day in the next few years, that would be fantastic." She says that a reimagining of 2003's BBC Big Read may be one way of reinvigorating backlist sales.

She speaks warmly about World Book Day, dropping her frequently sarcastic sense of humour. "Everyone gives a lot," she says. "The retailer gives a lot because we give away a huge amount of money in terms of the redemption of the £1 vouchers. The publishers give a lot because they do a great deal without much funding in terms of the books. So there's a lot of donations given in terms of making it work. I think if you can get a £1 voucher into the hands of 14 million kids, it's a brilliant initiative."

About turn

Russell's time in bookselling has coincided with W H Smith turning itself around from high street basketcase to profitable City darling. She says the business has got "sharper and faster" over the five years she has been in books. A greater push of Richard & Judy titles, cutting down on range-wide offers for more targeted campaigns, and ditching the much-derided "Worms" TV ads for the "Think" campaign are among the changes, she notes.

Russell says WHS' greatest muscle is in its real estate, split between 562 high street stores and 464 shops in airports, train stations, hospitals and motorway service areas. "From a business point of view, the high street is very focused around Christmas, the travel is very focused around Easter and summer. So it gives a very nice balance that you are not dependent on one season or type of business [to be successful]."

She says this diversity has led to a change in the type of customer WHS attracts away from "middle market mothers with young children. Because of the retail portfolio, and I hate to use this phrase, it's more of a broad church and it's very different between Heathrow T1 and Sutton High Street."

She says offers such as the Times Recommended Read, where titles are available for £2.99 if a customer buys the newspaper, have helped to bring a "new kind of shopper" into WHS.

That may be so, but one criticism that publishers have levelled at WHS is that its sales performance does not justify the rate card expense. Russell refutes this, adding: "If you think about how much money we spend on television, which is funded predominantly by W H Smith, publishers who have an awareness of above-the-line media spend can see how good value for money it is." She says of the publisher relationship: "It's obviously challenging at times but it is very strong. There's a lot more trust in W H Smith than there was five years ago."

Another change during Russell's time in books has been the explosion of celebrity titles and the subsequent concentration of marketing spend on the top titles. She says: "What you find now is everyone is going after the same thing. Waterstone's is trying to pull away from that with what they are doing with their Discovery campaign. But five years ago, you wouldn't have had a romance author highlighted at half price.

"You wouldn't have had W H Smith selling thousands and thousands of Paolo Coehlo books but we can now. So particularly when it comes to the celebrity books, everyone is chasing the same stuff, whether it is publishers or retailers."

She says an increasing challenge for high street retailers is dealing with the long tail. "The 5,000th top selling book will probably only sell 70 units per week. If you think about the stockholding most high street retailers have, it's a very challenging business to offer that breadth of choice. There's a lot of cash tied up in that."

Bone to pick

Russell has a bone to pick with The Bookseller when we meet for this interview. Since she was described as a "tenacious lifer" in the Bookseller Century feature (22nd May), she says colleagues have been keen to poke fun whenever she says something during meetings. "It's like: 'Wait everybody. Here speaks the tenacious lifer.'" (Although she later admits the description is accurate).

Russell became business unit director for books at WHS in October 2005, moving across from her role as business director for news and entertainment. She had first joined the retailer as a graduate trainee in 1993 or "off the milk round" as she puts it. She flirted with becoming a brand manager ("because I'm so creative" she jokes) but says that once she finally joined the retail side of WHS, she saw the benefits. "As soon as I got into it I knew that was where I should be. Straight away. It's so immediate. You can make a decision and see it instore very quickly . . . it's really exhilarating. I turned out on the right path even though it took me a while."

This interview was first published in The Bookseller in 2009.