Bookselling and BTU: Cardboard, book-stacking and preparations for the new academic year
I’ve spent my working life in publishing, thinking about readers as diverse as German schoolchildren and US security professionals. But until this August, I had never been on the front line in a bookshop, helping to secure that purchase when those customers walk in through the door.
In a terrific initiative by the Booksellers’ Association, chief executives of UK publishing businesses are being invited to spend the day working in a bookshop, and to share their experiences under the hashtag #shopfloorpublishers. Last year, trade publishers got the initiative going; this year, academic publishers are having their chance.
I had the pleasure of spending the day with Paula Martin and her team at Blackwell’s, located in the Students’ Union at Cardiff University. It’s a compact shop, catering for the 30,000 students at this significant university. It was soon clear that booksellers Paula, Kim and Sarah were on top of the challenge of getting everything ready for the arrival of many eager book-buyers in a few weeks’ time as the academic year began.
The first customer of the day was actually a student who wanted to sell back a second-hand copy of his German textbook from the previous year (Blackwell’s have a good scheme to cater for that need, but he was jumping the gun). As the day progressed, customers were less in evidence than the extraordinary number of book deliveries, with textbooks flowing in from various publishers and distributors.
My first task was to help unpack a mixed delivery, and the reality of cardboard, scissors, the nasty tape that secures some of the boxes, and the physicality of moving stacks of books around the store became clear. Paula and her team were quite undaunted by the task, and I could only admire their skill in finding space where none existed, and their mastery of the alternating stack (much more robust than a pile in which all the spines are aligned).
Between deliveries, I had the chance to chat with Paula about how she prepares for this key moment of the year, the ‘BTU’ or ‘Back to University’ campaign. There’s a year-round outreach to the lecturers and professors of the university, and I was hugely impressed at how Blackwell’s caters for the university’s desire to have students efficiently equipped at the right prices for their courses. Paula receives (and carefully interprets) reading lists from each department and ensures that books are available when students walk in (I was pleased to see a Spanish textbook I commissioned in the early 90s still featuring on the language department’s reading list).
Paula and her colleagues also visit departments in those key early days of the academic year, briefing students and introducing them to the course packs that will help them on their way.
“In an age of electronic metadata, it’s good to know that close collaboration between a bookseller and a publisher’s representative can make a difference in securing an effective textbook adoption."
It was interesting to hear Paula’s thoughts on contact with publishers’ sales representatives, and the difference that a good rep can make. In an age of electronic metadata, it’s good to know that close collaboration between a bookseller and a publisher’s representative can make a difference in securing an effective textbook adoption.
“.. there’s a real and enduring demand for the right books at the right time from students.”
The retail environment is not easy these days, with many shops, even major chains, closing down each week. But Paula was optimistic about the place of campus booksellers like Blackwell’s: there’s a real and enduring demand for the right books at the right time from students. Careful preparation, and investment in building strong relations with the university, mean that the academic bookshop looks set to be doing business for years to come.