Swann Song: Changes at WH Smith

The Bookseller has published a column I’ve written in response to WH Smith’s prelims announcement last week, which delivered the double whammy of £100m+ profits, and the upcoming departure of Kate Swann as Group CEO.  I’ve reproduced it below.

When the WHS announcement was made last week, two sets of instinctive responses crashed into each other.  The City reporters raised the roof for Queen Kate, during whose reign earnings-per-share have been driven to ever higher peaks, thanks to a combination of margin enhancement, cost-cutting and share buybacks.  And the naysayers pointed out that, yet again, sales were down – even in the go-go Travel division, like-for-likes keep falling.  Oh, and BTW, the store environment is pretty poor.

I try to take a slightly more nuanced (or reflective) view.  Swann has delivered extraordinary numbers through torrid times, but has she left her heir apparent, Steve Clarke (who is promising more of the same), with a sustainable model?

WH Smith has made every decision with its shareholders’ interests paramount – and that’s as it should be, am I right?  However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that those decisions have been predicated on short-to-medium term returns, rather than the sort of long-term investment that leading retailers make.  WHS is still a bricks-and-mortar company (notwithstanding a long-standing but rarely promoted transactional site, and the slightly more forward-looking Funky Pigeon online offer), trading in categories –  printed books, newspapers and magazines – that are in long-term decline.  Its overseas Travel expansion plans are broad-based – but winners need to be idenified from a pot-pourri of investments across several continents.

Retail Week has just dropped through the door, complete with a profile of Steve Clarke.  In the meantime, here’s The Bookseller piece:

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Booksellers and publishers working together: The BA Conference

I spent Monday with the Booksellers Association Conference at the University of Warwick, and wrote up my immediate reactions in this piece, published by The Bookseller.

I do believe that there is a robust future for the best independent bookshops.  But they’ll have to evolve, and to stay ahead of their customers’ expectations rather than trailing behind them.  I hope that bookshop owners, publishers and their trade associations can work together to ensure that there is still a role for these businesses.

Do add your comments.


There are a Million Stories in the Naked Book…

Philip Jones, deputy editor of The Bookseller, presents The Naked Book, a fortnightly radio show “dedicated to ripping the covers off print books and finding out what lies beneath”.

I was invited to participate in the most recent edition, Face the Bafflement and Do It Anyway, where I was joined by Dublin publisher/commentator Eoin Purcell, and Laura Owen of New York City’s Paid Content.  We covered the waterfront at an indecent speed, and with a high degree of candour, and low levels of obeisance.  It’s the longest day today, and it’s pouring with rain – what better way to pass an hour than to log in and enjoy.

You can listen to the broadcast here.


World E-Reading Congress: Legacy, bookshops and the future

The Bookseller has run a piece on the speech I gave to the World E-Reading Congress earlier this week, so I’m reproducing the text in this blog entry.

Whilst I’ve edited out some of the more obvious “lecture” elements (eg “Good afternoon, my name’s Philip Downer”), this is still a talk, so in places you may find it (even) more rhetorical than some of my usual writing; similarly, the grammar and syntax will be a little sketchy or forced in places!

My audience consisted of publishers, and those who provide publishing services – distribution, analysis, technical support, media coverage, plus a smattering of creatives (writers, illustrators, designers) and some online sellers of books and/or content.  There were no bricks and mortar retailers present.

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My theme for this afternoon is Bookselling: The past is another country, but the future is another planet.

This is a bit clunky, but on an agenda full of brave new worlders, keenly identifying opportunities and breakthroughs for the future of eReading, I am the lucky person who has elected to talk about shops.

I’ve given a few talks over recent months, and as I approach each one, the news for specialist booksellers appears to have got a little bit more challenging.  At Frankfurt last year, I observed that “We are entering a world where a handful of corporations own proprietary formats through which all the books, and a great proportion of all other creative content, are channelled.  New technology can do great things, but it can also damage supplier diversity and consumer choice.”

I stand by these words.  The bigger and more powerful the mega-corporations become, the more entrenched they’ll be.  They operate out of highly protected walled gardens, and their goal is to tie you, very tightly, into their specific eco-system.  It isn’t in their interests to allow this situation to change – even though I would argue, it is clearly not in the best interests of every author, publisher and reader, for a handful of tech-driven organisations to own books and reading.

I’m talking to you today about retailing, rather than the broader outlook for publishing.  However, the old author/agent/publisher/bookseller/reader model is significantly fractured and everyone in this industry needs to decide whether monopolies or diverse markets are more appropriate for its future.

As this is an eReading Congress, I think a show of hands would be appropriate.

Who uses an electronic device in their leisure reading – an eReader, a tablet, a smartphone?  [Practically everybody in the room.]

Put your hand down if your principle device is a Kindle.  [Around half of those present.]

OK.  Now, lower your hand if your principle device is an iPad or iPhone.  [The other half of the room.]

Sony?  Kobo?  Nook?  AN Other?  Samsung phone?  PC?  [No, no, no.  Everybody used Amazon or Apple devices.]

Although they play very different roles, there are of course two, big dominant players in our new world, a retailer and a consumer electronics company.  But Amazon and Apple are an odd couple

Amazon: is setting a course to becoming the world’s biggest retailer, and en route laying waste to the established author/publisher/bookseller ecosystem.

Take a look at its performance for the first quarter of this year:

Q1 2012

Revenue:      $13,180,000,000

Profit:          $      130,000,000

Margin:         1.0%

Amazon sells ebooks and pbooks at low margin, break-even or a loss.  This (we are assured) benefits the customer.

Amazon has very patient investors, who support a high P/E ratio, currently running at over 90x.  I assume they work on the principle that, once world domination is assured, the profits tap will be turned on.  Otherwise, where’s the value?

How many sectors and countries does Amazon have to dominate before this happens?

Apple:  is producing the products that everybody wants, selling phones, tablets and other hardware and content at a spectacular profit.

Notwithstanding Samsung, it pretty much leaves all its competitors in the dust.  It also, by-the-bye, runs a highly successful and much-respected retail chain.

Looking at its quarter one performance:

Q1 2012

Revenue:      $39,200,000,000

Profit:           $11,600,000,000

Margin:         29.6%

This extraordinary margin, we understand, also benefits the customer; so Amazon’s 1% is a good thing, and Apple’s 29.6% is also a good thing.

Naturally, Apple’s investors are as happy as can be, and they’re even being promised dividend payments in the future.  Oh, and Apple’s P/E ratio is a rather more rational 10.5.

Jeff and Steve have made this world for us in which consumers are happy to pay top dollar for the best hardware, and the lowest conceivable prices for content.

In the past month, of course, a new alliance has been formed – something of a 1990s supergroup.  Is the Microsoft/Barnes & Noble alliance strategically brilliant, or a last throw of the dice?  Microsoft has a track record of alliances with previous cycle winners, like Yahoo! and Nokia.

However, publishers and many readers are looking for alternatives to Amazon’s hegemony.  The deal enables B&N’s Nook and College divisions to separate themselves from the old superstore business, and provides the firepower for the Nook to be launched worldwide, with a solid retailer base in the US.

Are Barnes & Noble the future, or is this just a coming together of legacy businesses?  And what is a legacy business, anyway?

Ten years ago, if I’d said “legacy” to you, you’d have understood it in the old sense – “Something handed down from an ancestor or a predecessor or from the past”.  A legacy was a good thing – real value created by previous generations, and a solid foundation for the present and the future.

Today, the word “legacy” is used as an unthinking term of abuse – essentially, any business that has a history longer than a few years is a “legacy” business, and thus unfit for purpose, and ripe to be taken down.  Established publishing houses are described as “legacy businesses” by teenage entrepreneurs seeking to discredit them.  Perhaps they fail to distinguish between a business that has a valuable inheritance, and has the capacity and the drive to embrace the new world, with one that isn’t in control of events.  Or perhaps they confuse all established businesses with the fireworks of the tech sector, the Netscapes and MySpaces that crashed and burned; the Yahoos and Research In Motions whose innovation has been eclipsed by other, newer stars.

It’s inevitable that what appears to be change-making today will become – necessarily – protective and fixed tomorrow.  Perhaps, in this sense, “legacy” simply means “grown-up and responsible”.  Well, there are worse things to be, and, companies that once behaved radically will start to behave protectively instead, in order to maintain their primary income streams.

But let’s talk about retailing, because this is where a physical legacy can become really toxic.  In the 1930s, Woolworths opened nearly 400 brand new stores across the UK.  When I say “opened”, I don’t mean “rented a tin shed and screwed their name to the front”.  I mean, they acquired freeholds, and built big, brand-new stores.  This was a massive investment of cash and confidence in the market.  The crowning glory was the Blackpool store, which opened in Spring 1938.  Five storeys over 75,000 square feet, including two vast restaurants.  Woolworths was one of the biggest and most powerful consumer brands in the world.

Building all those stores guaranteed Woolworth a strong presence in every town in the country.  This was the legacy of its period of supergrowth, but as time passed, the retail offer lost its focus; the freeholds were sold, and the legacy of great stores was no longer a valuable inheritance, it was a millstone of failing retail premises.

Historically, this is what retailers have done – opened stores, and carried on opening them until sometime after the market cries “enough”!  Clintons Cards and Game are two of the most recent examples in the UK – and then, of course, there are the challenges facing the remaining booksellers.

Right, here’s a scary prospect for you.

Imagine you’re running a chain of bookshops.  We may be talking about hundreds or a handful; we may be talking about any country in the developed world.  Two or three years ago, the era of the superstore came to an end.  Now, I would argue, the era of the chain bookshop is going to follow, unless the model is radically reinvented.

So, if you’re running a chain of bookshops today, you have to do two impossible things.

The first is to deal with your straggling real estate, because, as I’ve discussed, the single biggest challenge for any bricks and mortar retailer is their legacy of old stores.  However carefully that estate has been built, however appropriate it was five years ago, it is now shot through with toxicity.  All of those shops are tied to long leases, with upward-only rent reviews.  Landlords are operating in a shrinking market, so are in no position to give concessions to any business that wants to close a shop while the lease still has years to run.  This leads to pre-packs and CVAs (company voluntary arrangement), but these acts of desperation are usually the prelude to administration.

All retail businesses have an unproductive tail, and any location that’s bad at the moment has the scope to get worse.

Archie Norman, Asda’s former CEO, has observed that retailers should close 5% of their estate every year, and he’s absolutely right – but I can think of no retail business that has heeded that advice until it’s much too late.

As a bookseller, your bricks and mortar shops have to be super-viable.  You must close today’s loss-makers, and tomorrow’s loss-makers too.

Plenty of retailers are facing this problem right now – Argos, French Connection, Mothercare and Thorntons have all been in the news in recent weeks.  However, although they’re vulnerable to online sellers, it’s still difficult to digitise a romper suit or a box of chocolates.

So, close your under-performing stores.  Then define your customers and their interests, and close any further stores that don’t match that profile.

Your second impossible challenge, and one that is at the heart of this conference’s purpose, is that you have to compete in an omni-channel marketplace, and you have to do so against some of the richest corporations the world has ever seen.  Logically, this is impossible, because it requires huge resources, and your chain of bookshops can’t do this alone.

This is where the book trade needs to pull together.  This industry is at a crossroads where it either allows the global corporations to progress from being walled gardens to becoming super-fortresses; or it fights to ensure plurality.  I salute unreservedly the stand that Macmillan and Pearson are taking, alongside Apple, in the Department of Justice case regarding agency pricing.  A couple of weeks ago, Amazon decided to give away the Hunger Games eBook free of charge.  Now, maybe I’m just losing it as I get older, but can anyone explain to me how giving away the best-selling book in the world helps to secure current income, or to create a future value proposition, for anyone other than Amazon?  It may be that the publisher and thus the author still got paid, but at the long-term cost of proclaiming their work to be without value.

Booksellers today need the freedom to participate in the omnichannel world, and it is in everyone’s interests to lower those barriers.  That means removing DRM, so that content becomes device-agnostic; customers can buy the hardware that suits them, and the content, at an appropriate price, from the retailer who can do the best job for them.

I would love to see thinking of this sort emerging from Microsoft and Barnes & Noble’s NewCo.  If B&N thinks it now has the firepower to challenge Amazon without also changing the ground rules, then they will find that Amazon can always out-gun them.  Anybody else with a stake in ebookselling needs to do likewise.  You won’t beat Amazon by being a pale imitation of Amazon, pleading with consumers to do what’s best for the long-term health of the book trade.  Consumers have enough to worry about.  They will respond, though, to a different, better offer.

Your retail goal – because you’re running a chain of bookshops, remember? – has to be an integrated ebook and pbook offer, with full online visibility of stock by branch for your customers.  You’ll need a financial model that supports “showrooming”, because it’s a fact of life.  You’ll offer Click and Collect, targeted social marketing and all the rest of it – everything a sophisticated pure-play online retailer does, with a shop attached.  You’ll need to understand more about your individual customers than ever before.

Your online and ebook offer can of course cover all categories.  Your pbook offer must be reshaped to reflect the new reality.  That means fewer fiction paperbacks, and fewer reference books, because the day of the “general bookshop” is over.  You need to be known for doing a few things extremely well, not everything tolerably competently.

All of this sounds scary, and you will all be aware that the number of specialist bookshops in the UK has declined by over 20% since the credit crunch kicked off.

Booksellers – and, by extension, our suppliers and our customers – invested far too much energy in worrying about supermarkets, and not enough in recognising that Amazon wasn’t just another specialist competitor in a healthy eco-system, with a novel twist.  Today, if we take all the UK’s true specialists, the Waterstones, the Foyles, the academic chains, all the independents, and add them together, I don’t suppose their unit sales are as great as Amazon’s are now.

There’s a school of thought that says, well, you pesky booksellers, you should have done more.  Should have done it sooner.  More fool you.  I think this is a little like acknowledging that a fine historical building has caught fire, and saying “they should have installed a better sprinkler system.  I’m not calling the fire brigade” – when there is still plenty of merit worth saving, and plenty that you’d miss if that magnificent building was gone.

Specialist booksellers – including independents – are now barely competing with each other at all any more.  They’re competing with Amazon and Apple; they’re competing for time as well as spending.

However, here’s the interesting thing.  At the risk of sounding like Clement Freud on Just A Minute, I’m going to run through a diverse list of retailers.  Here goes:

Anthropologie • Argos • Asda • B&Q • Bentalls • Blacks • Comet • Conran Shop • Cotswold Outdoor • Dobbies • Eden Project • English Heritage • The Entertainer • Fortnum & Mason • Habitat • Halfords • Hamleys • Harrods • Harvey Nicholls • HMV • Historic Royal Palaces • Hobbycraft • Homebase • John Lewis • Lakeland • Morrisons • Mothercare • National Gallery • National Trust • 99p Stores • Oliver Bonas • PC World • Pets At Home • Poundland • Royal Horticultural Society Wisley • Ryman • Sainsbury’s • Selfridges • Tate • Tesco • Toys ‘R’ Us • Urban Outfitters • Wyevale Garden Centres

Most of these businesses are thriving, successful enterprises.  Some are struggling – but all of these chains are also booksellers.

Some, like the supermarkets, are big, important players.  Others offer books as a value proposition, or as part of the lifestyle offer they’re promoting, or as a souvenir of a day out.

But they all believe that there’s a place in their shops for physical books.  Most of these retailers have a much clearer understanding of their brand, and of their customer, than general bookshops have.

The physical bookshop struggles, but the physical book can thrive.

We tend to look at the problem from a “growing online, declining physical” standpoint.  But if the solution is to ensure that all physical stores have multichannel capability, surely the same applies to pureplay online retailers?

As Sarah Wilson of the Egremont Group has argued persuasively, without a high street presence, without the ability to see and touch the goods you want to buy, online sales will plateau.  After all, if we all really wanted to, we could stop using bricks and mortar shops tomorrow, and just buy everything online – it’s all there, after all.  But we don’t.  Consumers of the future will be looking for an “integrated experience… as they choose to shop across channels and increasingly look on pure plays as employing yesterday’s model”.

OK, this is where it gets interesting.  You’re running a chain of bookshops, remember?  But chains are inevitably bland.  Chains are corporate.  Chains are bound by process; necessarily managed to lowest common denominator standards.

I’d posit that more good managers leave book chains and open their own bookshops than happens in most other sectors.  They do it because they love what they do.

So, at this stage in the development of the bookshop, I think it’s time to acknowledge this.  You could create a partnership model, like John Lewis’s.

Or you could be bolder, and create a franchise model.  The centre would provide the technology, the systems back-up, the buying power.  The managers acquire ownership of the stores, buying an interest in them or purchasing them outright, customising their shops as appropriate for their markets.

You cease to have a chain of stores.  Instead, you have a network of individual specialists.  They may go down the children’s route, open cafes, build non-book sales.  Or they may, like the Harvard Bookstore, invest in Espresso Book machines; providing a real specialist service, with same-day delivery to local addresses, and next-day around the world.

That network of stores doesn’t have to be restricted to your core business.  You can sell your chain’s expertise to other independent bookstores, and reinvent yourself as a bookshop service organisation.

We have a number of good businesses supporting UK booksellers.  Gardners’ networked Hive website, offering pBooks and eBooks online; the Bookseller and Nielsen, providing news and reliable data; and of course the support of the Booksellers Association.  I’d like to see all of these organisations – and others – committed to supporting everyone who is a bookselling specialist, whether they’re primarily selling eBooks or pBooks, online or instore.  If anyone could pull this together it would be the BA, but the organisation would have to repurpose itself appropriately.

There’s a way forward for individually managed and owned shops that have full access to ebooks, and yet can localise their offer to suit each physical location, each local residential, business and academic population, in a way that chains inevitably struggle to deliver.

And funnily enough, your carefully tailored local offer could be exactly what individual customers around the world are looking for.  And today, you can reach out to any potential customers.  You can identify where there are similar populations, elsewhere in the country, elsewhere in the world, and serve them too.

Of course, this means that you and your shop need to have to have an opinion.  A point of view.  A personality.  All of these things rolled up into a specific and saleable competence.  Please some of the people most of the time, because you can’t be all things to all people.

Supermarkets have done their damage, and will reduce their book ranges as the mass-market transitions away from paper books.  This is an opportunity for our industry’s specialists, who need to improve in quality and consistency.  Some of our best bookshops are among the smallest and most independent, in every sense of the word.

Customers will still seek out good, well-run shops, and I suggest that the distinction between “independent” and “specialist chain” is a whole lot less important to everyone’s future, than the distinction between “specialist” and “non-specialist”.

A healthy bookselling sector is in the best interests of everyone in the trade – authors, agents, publishers, readers.  Bookselling needs to remodel itself for the future, and do so in partnership with all the other key players in the publishing business.

But books and bookshops still matter, and there are still people who want to sell books.  If those specialist bookshops focus on competing with each other for ever diminishing returns, they might disappear altogether.  The more effectively they can work together, the more robust our retail offer in the future.

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My eBook, A Year at Front of Store, is available in these Amazon Kindle territories –

United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Spain


Thinking about legacies

I’ve been thinking about positive and negative legacies over the past few weeks, and my talk at the World E-Reading Congress tomorrow uses legacy challenges as one of its springboards.  I’ll share a few more of those thoughts with you once the speech is unembargoed, but in the meantime, here’s my monthly column in The Bookseller, pondering the dead weight of real estate legacies that can damage or even destroy traditional retailers.  (Plenty of recent examples available.)

It is stupidly neophiliac to treat any past achievement as a legacy to be denied and downgraded, of course.  Last night I had a splendid time at The Bookseller’s Industry Awards night in London’s glittering West End.  Several of the major awards went to long-standing organisations that are still closely associated with their founders – businesses that understand the value of what they’ve created, and can build imaginatively upon it.  Congratulations to (in this instance) Usborne Books and Foyles; and indeed to all of last night’s prizewinners.