It’s Calliope!

It’s Calliope? What’s Calliope?

Well, plenty of things, actually. Calliope was the Muse of Epic Poetry, back when the Greek Gods ran the world. Since then, the name has been applied to (amongst other things) a hummingbird, a font, an asteroid, a saint, a river, a housing project, five Royal Navy ships and a host of other things.  And it’s pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable: Ca-LYE-o-pi.

The name was also given to a steam-driven fairground organ, which you can read about here. I’d rather like to own one of these, though the horses might be high-maintenance.

Calliope, the wonderful operonicon or steam car of the muses EDIT

And in the spring of 2013, Calliope will be a retail business operating from a physical shop and a virtual website, selling gifts, books and all manner of attractive things, and run by my old colleague and friend Andy Adamson, and me.

Of course, there’ll be more to tell when we have a business to launch, but in the meantime, here’s what Benedicte Page had to say about us in The Bookseller:

Downer to open new store:

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/downer-open-new-store.html

06.12.12 | Benedicte Page | The Bookseller

Former Borders UK c.e.o. Philip Downer is to open a new store, selling books, gifts and other merchandise, in the spring.

The shop, named Calliope, will be opened in an undisclosed Surrey location for which the lease is currently under negotiation. Downer will run the shop in partnership with former Borders colleague Andy Adamson, who is handling commercial relationships with vendors. A recruitment process has begun for a store manager, with applications welcome.  Conversations with publishers are already underway.

Downer, who announced the venture at a meeting of The Galley Club last night (5th December), said: “We envisage a store and an online offer with a combination of books, gifts and other merchandise. I’ve been saying for some time that bookshops have to diversity and that being an expert 100% bookshop shows a profound failure to understand how customer expectations have changed. There is an opportunity to sell quality books to a broad consumer audience.”

Downer declined to give details on what percentage of his offer would be books, saying the volume and proportion of books within the retail offer would vary “according to season and customer demand”. They will, however, all be beautifully produced volumes, books “of quality, inside and out”, he promised. “I was a judge in the British Book Design and Production Awards and spent two days looking at these fantastic books and recognising that we have the design and production capability in this country to produce truly beautiful, attractive books. It is interesting the extent to which some of the major publishers is grasping that nettle.”

The bookshop will have an “interesting and extensive” but as yet unspecified online offer and will also act as a community resource, Downer said.

The name “Calliope” refers to the music of epic poetry, but Downer said he was more inspired by the old steam organ of the same name towed around the country by horses, the “explosive fairground noises” of which feature on one of the songs on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

Calliope is already on Twitter, at @CalliopeGifts, so do follow us and keep in touch with developments, as we move from being a great idea to becoming a great shop.

Mr Kite 1

In the meantime, I’ll be undertaking at least ten somersets on solid ground. Have a good Christmas, and don’t forget, shopping at local stores keeps your economy and community alive – and their taxes pay for the services you use.

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Waterstones’ store refurbishments

The Bookseller has rounded up some of the press commentary that followed Monday’s announcement of Waterstones’ new relationship with Amazon.  Speaking to The Guardian, James Daunt stated that  Waterstones’ owner Alexander Mamut is putting “tens of millions of pounds” into the store refurbishment programme, which will see roughly 100 of its stores refitted this year.

Some of those refits are already completed, and they merit your attention.  I popped into the Twickenham branch yesterday afternoon.  This was opened as an Ottakars in about 2005, and has run with that brand’s cherrywood fixtures and green carpet ever since.  (Photo below shows a typical Ottakars interior: ageofuncertainty.blogspot.com)

The new Waterstones look has been delivered on a carefully managed budget, but the feel of the shop has changed totally.  Gone is the clutter of over-bearing fixtures and narrow aisles, and in its place is a cool, classic/modern shop.

The most immediately noticeable changes are as follows:

The front two-thirds of the store are uncarpeted, and now have exposed floorboards.

As this photo of the front of store demonstrates, the overall appearance is clean and classy.  That “gateleg” table can only carry so much stock, and is clearly not designed to have understock rammed beneath it.

Cards and other impulse items are right at the front (the entrance is immediately to the left of the photo).  New books merchandising is subtle – too subtle?

But it’s the wooden floor that makes the real, immediate difference, reminiscent of Waterstone’s in Hampstead back in the 1980s.  It exudes authority and class.

Twickenham isn’t the most flexible of retail spaces – it’s a long, narrow “bowling alley”, with a two-foot jump in height in the rear third of the store.  As you can see, there’s a plain carpet in here; lighting is a combination of directional spots and “domestic” lampshades, and fixtures are a mix of new (all black) and refurbed Ottakars (cherry with affixed black surrounds).

Tight ceilings here, so the tops of the bookcases abut the tiles.  Unless you’ve got nine-foot ceiling heights, this always induces a slight claustrophobia.  The front two-thirds of the store are much airier.

So, this is an attractive, sensibly sized store with the right level of sophistication for its suburban/professional customer base.  I enjoyed browsing through the store, though I’d like to be surprised a little more often by the title/range choices, which mostly feel safe and generic.

Three concerns:

1.  When the Kindle tie-up goes live in the autumn, how much space will it require, whereabouts in the store, and with what effect on the overall experience?  I’d hazard that the new shopfit has fewer shelves than the old, but I may have been deceived by the general decluttering – practically all spinners, dumpbins and other detritus have been consigned to the skip.  With the exception of a few book tables, everything (cards, toys etc) sells from bookcase carcases now.

2.  It’s often a feature of newly remodelled shops, but the feel at present is pretty sterile.  The store needs more imagery, and more opportunities for the Twickenham team to share their enthusiasm with their customers.

3.  Waterstones has always struggled with merchandising children’s books properly.  This bay is adjacent to the central aisle; a concession has been made to tumbling tots in the form of a mat on the timber floor, but the overall effect is still one of children’s books displayed for adults to select and buy without undue lingering.  The PoS is old here, so there may be a makeover in the works, but children need a safe space that is clearly merchandised for them, and becomes a place where children want their parents to take them.  This was an area that (Tintin obsession notwithstanding) Ottakars tended to get right, but Waterstones still gets wrong.

Of course, children’s publishing is being supplanted/enhanced (you choose) by iPad apps and other digital media, but I’d contend that the children’s printed book category is a whole lot more robust than paperback genre fiction.  Particularly after Amazon has taken up residence in the shop.

And Amazon-to-come is now the spectre in the corner of every branch of Waterstones.  Monday’s hysteria is slowly giving way to a more measured response to Waterstones’ new partnership.  More measured, but no more comprehending or enthusiastic.

I’m a lover of bookshops large and small, and of course, like everyone, I understand that it’s no longer possible – no longer rational – to have  pbook stores without a complementary and first-class ebook and online offer.  I was very interested in this story in this morning’s Publishing Perspectives, which describes the creation in South America of an alliance between Grupo Planeta, Telefónica and Bertelsmann to create an “Airbus” to challenge Amazon’s “Boeing”.  Quite what shape this project might take is unclear, but – as I argued last week at the World E-Reading Congress – publishing and bookselling can only enjoy a future that doesn’t result in total Amazon subsumption by working together – and, in the process, ensuring that a few decent bookshops survive.

And, as of next month (and notwithstanding WH Smith), Waterstones will be Twickenham’s only bookshop, as independent Langton’s closes after over 60 years of bookselling.  It’s good to see Waterstones investing in its physical future, but that investment combined with an independence from Amazon would, I guess, have been even more welcome.

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New Stores for Old: Dorset’s confident independent retailers

Following my New York piece in PP this morning, The Bookseller has published my regular column.  This month I visit two stores in Dorset: Wellchester, the former Woolworths in Dorset that is now a successful independent store, and Winstone’s Books in Sherborne, the brand new indie opened by Wayne Winstone.

You can read the article here.

Pictures: Crosshatch pics; core.estatevue.co.uk

AFTERWORD:  It didn’t work out after all – Wellchester announced its closure in July 2012.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

My eBook, A Year at Front of Store, is available in all Amazon Kindle territories – United StatesUnited KingdomGermanyFranceItaly and Spain.  


What Do New York’s Bookstores Have that London’s Lack?

Publishing Perspectives, the American online journal of international publishing news and opinion, has published a piece I wrote following a whirlwind tour of New York City bookstores, complete with a neatly provocative title!

And indeed, Gotham bookstores do have some qualities that less apparent in London – and I’ve focussed on some of the best of breed.  Read on, and I hope you’ll track down some of these great shops next time you’re in NYC.

What Do New York’s Bookstores Have that London’s Lack?

A few pictures to whet your appetites:

Rizzoli – photo: store website

McNally Jackson: store website

Scholastic: author’s own

St Mark’s: nycgo.com

WORD: author’s own

Greenlight: nyc.popsugar.com

Idlewild: gt.gotoside.com

Strand: thechimesinthelibrary.blogspot.com

Barnes & Noble 5th Avenue: simple.wikipedia.org

Barnes & Noble Union Square: booksinnewyork.blogspot.com

Barnes & Noble 86th and Lexington: author’s own


Back to the FutureBook: a retailer’s view

A scintillating day yesterday at the FutureBook Conference at the QEII Conference Centre in the heart of Westminster.

2011 has been the Year of Change, with digital content and eReading becoming established across the sector, thanks to the explosive success of the Kindle and (to a lesser extent) the iPad.  The potential of smarter and more versatile devices, allied to social networking in the very broadest sense, has got people like Stephen Page rethinking the whole publishing paradigm – and it was great to see experienced but independent leading publishers like Page, Rebecca Smart and Kate Wilson being recognised for picking up the old business models and giving them a damned good shake.  It was also refreshing to see more young and/or independent delegates, who will reshape the face of publishing over the next 5-10 years.

Takeaway stats:

Dominique Raccah, CEO of Chicago-based Sourcebooks, kicked off:

Ereader users believe they are purchasing more titles.  The evidence suggests, yes; but the industry still lacks a reliable eBook “chart” in the UK and the US, and Amazon/Apple are notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to sharing their data.

Ereader users believe their overall spend on books has risen.  As overall spend (eBooks + pBooks) has fallen, this is hard to prove.

Ereader users believe they’re reading more.  Again, ths is unproven, though there may be a link to “dual screen” use, whereby the user browses a device (most typically, an iPAd) at the same time as they’re watching TV.

A snapshot of the Top 85 Kindle charts in the US: 66% of titles were published by “traditional” publishers; 18% were self-published; and 16% came from “non-traditional” (ie digital) publishers.  nb for the traditionalists, this compares to about 95% (my guess!) trad publishers in the average print bookshop.

Evan Schnittman of Bloomsbury divided the audience with his “hardcover + eBook” proposal (he’d charge a 25% premium for the bundle, which presumably would include a VAT element).  Personally, I’m gung-ho for this idea, particularly as Evan reminded us of the difference between “books” (objects that deliver permanence and permit display), and “reading” (which is all about content).

I sometimes chuckle at the “convenience” argument around eBooks.  Is it really a whole lot more convenient to carry an eReader than a single book?  (Do you remember, in the dim, dark days before Kindle, when you used to say “I’d love to read more, but carrying a book is so inconvenient“?)  It’s the enhanced convenience of carrying lots of books, and being able to purchase when you wish.  These are great qualities, though perhaps they encourage the grasshopper mentality of the dual-screener?  (Research suggests that 26% of Kindle users do this.)

Meanwhile, while the take-off trajectory of eReaders has been, and will continue to be, spectacular; though bear in mind that 76% of book-buyers have yet to buy any kind of eBook and – according to BML research – over 50% of those aged 35 or over don’t at present intend to do so.

Finally – I think this was an AT Kearney stat – European eBook sales currently break down as follows:  52% of all eBook purchases take place in the UK.  Germany – where Thalia’s Oyo is making the running – delivers 28%.  After that, France is at 7%, Italy 3%, and the rest of the continent 10%.

This brief run-down of stats doesn’t give the reader any real flavour of the optimism, enthusiasm and boundary-breaking that characterised great ideas and discussion from William Higham, Valla Vakili, Charlie Redmayne, John Mitchinson and many, many more.  But we need to press on…

OK, let’s talk about bookshops

It fell to me to wave my accustomed bucket of cold water around the Fleming Room, and to remind the Conference that this once-in-300-years reshaping of the industry is taking place during the worst consumer downturn, and the worst set of economic forecasts, for many, many years.  New devices, formats and ideas are being launched into the teeth of last Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, which promised austerity beyond the next election, and a return to 2001 living standards in – 2017?  2020?  Providing the Euro doesn’t implode, of course – then things will be much worse.

So, book people need to be thinking not just about how to reshape their industry in such a way as to preserve copyright, encourage new talent and stop Our Friends in Seattle (or, more broadly, the “GAFA” group*) from dominating commerce and innovation; they need to embed that change at the same time as Joe Public is devoting his dwindling income to candles and tinned food.

I was chairing a discussion panel that brought together Kobo vendor relations manager Cameron Drew, Hive development manager Julie Howkins, Middle East bookseller/publisher Jeremy Brinton, Retail Week Knowledge Bank director Robert Clark, and Leo Burnett marketing strategist Dr Alan Treadgold.  Here are some of our key points:

The UK pBook market has consoidated to one specialist (Waterstone’s), one generalist (WH Smith) and one website, which between them meet most of the needs of committed book-buyers.  (Of course, there are also three participating supermarket chains, though they aren’t specialist by any definition.)  This represents a real narrowing of the market – but perhaps that market will now start to broaden again, driven by feisty and more self-confident indies, the arrival of eReader alternatives to the Kindle (specifically Kobo), and an expanding reach (devices, channels, formats) from the Stephen Page-defined world of broad publishing.

However, no one has yet resolved the “showroom” conundrum: once its sales have fallen by around 20%, a physical bookshop becomes untenable, and has to close.  Bookshops can move to cheaper premises, can sell a broader range of products (toys, coffee etc), but unless they are actively participating in eBook sales, their market share will be eroded beyond recovery.  This will leave those 50% aged 35+ who don’t intend to buy an eReader for Amazon to scoop up into their search-excellent, browse-lousy world.

The panel recommended some solutions to this problem:

Ereader manufacturers that partner with retailers can encourage consumers into a bookshop relationship without committing them to a non-transferable, Amazon-type scenario.  Hive-affiliated bookshops (currently about one-third of serious indies?) can sell eBooks in multiple formats, and share in the revenue they generate, as well as creating local incentives for their customers.  And Kobo’s retailer partnership model (WHS, Fnac, Indigo etc) clearly has legs.

Physical bookshops must use their websites to drive store footfall.  One of the UK’s most consistently successful retailers, Richer Sounds, has a strong eCommerce site, which nevertheless acts primarily as a driver to get customers into personality-saturated stores, where they can test the product and take advice from trained staff.  There’s a bookshop model here.

Click-and-Collect is growing swiftly as a preferred distribution channel for many customers.  26% of Argos’s business is Click & Collect, and M&S, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s are among the retailers investing heavily in this service.  Click & Collect allows the customer to pick up their goods at a time convenient to them – and of course exposes them to personal service, and many more buying opportunities.

Social networking through eReaders (Kobo Vox) can bring reading communities together, and could be curated by bookshops who currently support reading groups.  Events and literary festivals not only bring together readers with shared interests, but underline a bookshop’s specialisms.  (And deliver healthy book sales to boot.)  In short, community runs through good bookselling like the words in a stick of rock, and good staff matter more in bookselling than perhaps any other retail sector.

Everyone in the world of books – publishers, authors, retailers, analysts – needs to be focusing more on their end customer: the person who buys the book.  Historically (ie until a few months ago) publishers tended to view retailers as their customers, with (as John Makinson has noted) a B2B mindset at odds with the creation, marketing and selling of consumer products.  Book trade people need to be aware of retailing best practice, and to understand how consumers and retailers are behaving in sectors far away from their own.  We cannot integrate ourselves into 21st century lives while still behaving at one remove from our readers.

Finally, there is a common retail trend running through all sectors – fashion, homewares, electrical etc – and that’s a trend for fewer, better shops.  We certainly have fewer bookshops than we had five years ago, and it seems likely that the number will continue to fall.  Those that are left must be digitally integrated, and committed to a programme of continual improvement.

*GAFA:  Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon.  Each is developing a vertically integrated suite of services and functions, as follows:

  • Storage
  • Device
  • Purchase
  • Payment
  • Social

The walls around each of their gardens vary in height.


Ewan Morrison at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

There appears to be much apocalyptic talk in Edinburgh this year.  I’m in London, so I’m reliant on The Guardian copiously recording all the key events.  Ewan Morrison discusses a “bleak vision of a publishing industry in terminal decline“, which won’t help to cheer up a wet, end-of-summer Tuesday afternoon – but if you haven’t read these arguments, you should now.  Are books dead?  Can authors survive?

The comments merit closer scrutiny than usual, because they run the full range of opinions, argued passionately.  Somebody called Joe McCann opines as follows:

I think publishers are in far more trouble than they imagine. The change is not going to happen in a generation, we’re talking months.

The biggest Christmas gift last year was the Kindle. The average person is a little slow, but they catch on. Once they figure out how they can get any book they want for free, they’ll never pay for another one. Out of curiosity (not really criminality), a few months back I downloaded a few book bundles from Pirate Bay. I now have in my possession something like 30,000 books. You can get anything. People assemble the entire New York Times best seller list and you can download it in a few minutes.

What we’re about to see is the catastrophic collapse of the publishing industry. We’re literally talking a few financial quarters away from all our bookshops being shuttered up. We’ll be left with soulless mobile phone shops.

Good books, music, film, are essential to the quality of our lives. Without them, or with poor substitutes, our lives are a lot poorer.

I spent a delightful thirty minutes in Richmond-upon-Thames’s excellent Open Book shop this afternoon.  A small, corridor-shaped space packed to the rafters with interesting books, new and old.  I don’t doubt that Richmond will be able to sustain The Open Book for a while yet, perhaps for longer than it can Waterstone’s, but as I riffled through book after delightful book, I did wonder if we really knew what we were doing, laying waste to all these welcoming places, full of such good, valuable and important things.


Not available on Kindle

Hatchard’s makes the case for the coffee table book

We’re some way away from having tablets or readers that can replicate the experience of a good illustrated book.  The quality of the paper, printing, binding; the erudite text; and the sheer loveliness of the object.

We’re also some way away from satisfyingly buying the physical book online.  Unless the customer can Look Inside!™ at any page they want, the serendipitous buy is still a challenge.  And interesting adjacencies – as my lousy cameraphone pic above shows – work much better in a physical environment.

So, this is another entry under the heading of “What Bookshops Do Well” – but it’s the specialist end of the market.  And the Conran Shop (for instance) can add another layer of retail fairy dust which makes the customer more persuadable to part with their £30…