Super Thursday was a couple of days ago. Before this year, it had been an unofficial event. Now publishers are co-operating in order to boost book sales in our dwindling bricks-and-mortar book shops, now numbering just 2,300 serving a population of over 60 million.
Top selling books at Christmas are biographies, cookery, humour and children’s books. Usually there’s a dozen or so novels by high-profile authors as well. I must say, having worked in Waterstones during Christmas 2010, bookselling at that time of year was rather depressing.
Complaints about Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals were a daily occurrence – we either ran out of it or complaints were made that those meals took much more than 30 minutes to make. Justin Bieber’s First Step 2 Forever was a big seller, an autobiography by a spoilt child – what the hell could he have to say that would warrant 200 pages? I heard many a customer swearing when they saw it.
Too many Christmas biographies are overhyped, superficial vanity pieces promising juicy gossip that never deliver as opposed to meaningful and diverse life stories. A Simples Life: The Life and Times of Aleksandr Orlov was a huge hit despite it being an autobiography by a fictional character used in TV adverts to promote an insurance price comparison site.
Then there were the people that were only interested in the Man Booker Prize winner. I’ve never put much stock in literary prizes and awards, especially the larger ones. It seems like the most deserving books rarely win them, whether that’s coincidence or something more sinister, I don’t know. Unfortunately some consider the judges’ choice to be gospel in terms of the best book of the year, and I can’t help but think that they need to expand their reading horizons beyond what a small panel of people think is good.
When I wasn’t disappointed in people’s reading choices, I was shocked at their behaviour. I unwittingly aided a book thief in his escape. After I told a mother with her one-year-old where the nearest public toilets were in the shopping centre and turned to do something, I turned back to find her picking her little boy off the floor and pulling up his underwear and trousers, having presumably making him go on the carpet of the store. Telling an older lady that we had run out of ereaders resulted in a stream of abuse and a demand to see my manager.
Standard issues with the job were exacerbated by Amazon and the recession. The pressure to SELL! SELL! SELL! drummed into our heads with a month-by-month income and expenses table showing that Christmas is the only time the store makes a profit, and if they don’t the store would be closing in the New Year because there was another Waterstones around the corner. (Both are still there today.)
Pushing the store cards, and the special offers of books of the week next to the checkout, and in-store ordering were a real drag. The best parts were being allowed to read the books while shelving them and before buying them if they were embargoed (those only to be sold on a certain date and not before because it incurs a fine), free ARCs, and store returns.
Store returns were fun. I treated it like a scavenger hunt, and I was the best at it. Finding all the books that hadn’t been sold after a certain amount of time and returning them to a warehouse to be sent back to publishers. Most of them were hardbacks and self-published titles, usually in unsaleable condition because they’ve been shoved into the spaces underneath tables and every other nook and cranny. Hardbacks take up space so priority is given to paperbacks and bestselling hardbacks, everything else becomes a victim of limited storage space.
I haven’t entered a Waterstones since I left that job. There were many issues I had with the company, issues I shared with thousands of other staff members who were particularly vocal and critical of centralized management at the time. Perhaps conditions have changed. The majority of those 2,300 book shops in the UK will be Waterstones. We have few independent and second-hand stores. Actually, charity shops are probably the place to go for second-hand books.
Will Super Thursday meet its aim to boost sales for bricks-and-mortar book shops? I doubt it. I’d wager Amazon will make more out of this. For starters, there’s no comprehensive list of the titles released. How will potential customers know what’s available if news agencies can only name a handful of books without linking to a place online for more information.
Why not release these books in stores before they’re available on Amazon? Sometimes this happens unofficially, it isn’t publicized. One disadvantage, it’d affect weekly and monthly sales. Bestselling list territory may look different without Amazon’s contributions in the early days when they’re unable to sell newly released books, but I’d wager book-lovers would still support their favourite authors.
Book shops need to offer a unique experience in addition to selling books. What can you get there that you can’t get at Amazon? A beautiful building, a large selection, knowledgeable staff, signings, a relaxed and cozy atmosphere, a large fireplace, inspiring displays, etc. Some of these are illustrated in the Guardian’s promotion for Jen Campbell’s The Bookshop Book which is part of the Books Are My Bag campaign.
Another alternative would be to compete with Amazon as an online-only entity. Rent and wages are the biggest expenses for stores. This is what The Book Depository did. However, their popularity meant they were proving to be too competitive and Amazon bought them.
Publishers selling books directly to the public, is another idea. Some do this already via ebooks, although the prices are rarely cheaper than on Amazon which is surprising. Costs should be cheaper when there’s no middle man.
Traditional publishers have been slow to respond to the technical revolution in reading, failing to invest in ebooks instead trying to kill them off with DRM and agency pricing – both have backfired. Joining Bitlit or creating their own programme to offer a free e-version of a paperback bought would be an extra incentive to buy hardcopies.
Unwillingness to accept ebooks as an additional source of revenue has let Amazon dominate that part of the market in the UK since they control 80% of the UK ebook market. It’s within publishers’ ability to invest in an online infrastructure to sell directly to readers and even undercut Amazon if they so wished. Making their books available to subscription services like Oyster and Scribd would improve their allure when comparing those services to Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited programme.
Publishers need to react faster to changing markets, be more inventive and willing to take risks or Amazon will win the war.
- WHSmith blog: What is Super Thursday?
- Guardian: Bookshops hope ‘super Thursday’ will help start a new chapter for publishing
- Waterstones blog: The Big Book Season: Super Thursday is here!
- Sky News: Book Shops Hope For Super Thursday Boost
- The Telegraph: Will Super Thursday save publishing?