The book world is undoubtedly a passion industry – writers are usually driven by aspiration, publishers should be fuelled by creativity in producing the best books they possibly can, and a love of books must be fundamental to any bookseller.
Although it is a multi-billion pound industry, with great entrepreneurial opportunity, all three would quickly agree that money wasn’t the first thought driving them through the door. Starting salaries are low (employers consciously or not benefiting from the ‘doing it for the love of books’ mantra), there are some scary stats around average writer earnings and bookshops have been surviving on increasingly scary margins.
For myself it was a passion for books that took a meandering graduate into the industry and aspiration to do something unique that led me to start my first book business, before the word entrepreneur came to the fore. And I would never want to turn the book industry into a dry and chilling business world – it is after all very different from selling toilet rolls or screws and with a great history behind it must remain so.
However, as the book industry evolves with increasing pace, which most are now aware it must, this love is often misunderstood or misused. And here are some of the ways how:
It is not an excuse for inefficiency – efficiency isn’t cold and cruel, it’s essential and fundamental. If you love your child, you get them to nursery on time. You don’t take them halfway there and then leave them without a coat while you wander off to spend the next six weeks in the pub, before sending them in two months late. Social Services would take a view. Inefficiency isn’t charming, it’s lazy.
It isn’t a reason for rudeness or ‘quirkiness’ - customers rule. These famous rude but successful characters, whether a publican, bookshop owner or an editor, are a myth. Customers have more choice then ever and don’t take any nonsense. Customer service has never been more important and grumpy booksellers will sit in empty shops, just as publishers who look down on the customer should sit in the dole queue.
It should inform judgement and not replace it – I’ve never quite got the head or heart thing. The two should work together – the love for a new book and the business case for it should be one and the same. ‘I went with my heart and not my head’ to me says ‘I made a poor judgement but saying this makes me feel a little better about it.’ Saying ‘I went with my head and not my heart’ says to me that you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing.
It should not be a reason to keep insiders in and outsiders out – the book industry has an employment issue. It is awash with English graduates, I am one, in all roles, with a lack of successful specialists coming in from outside to take the industry forward, particularly in sales, marketing and digital roles. We don’t like people coming in as they get in the way of us telling each other how talented we are – now is the time for being less sycophantic and getting more diverse skills into the industry.
It is not an excuse for not addressing issues – the wife or husband is halfway out of the door, the bills are piling up on the welcome mat and the cat has mange. It’s time to make changes and not continue on regardless. If your book business has issues, and there is not a business without them, they need to be addressed and as quickly as possible. Change should not be feared or ignored but instead it should be a constant process.
I will leave it at that but could go on. I have watched enough soaps to know that love isn’t locking what you love in the bathroom to stop it leaving; it should be about wanting the best for what you love. And if you can offer nothing at all, the kindest thing might be to move on.
As I wrote that this, the word ‘excuse’ never seemed far away and I think that’s what it comes down to. A passion for the industry is not an excuse for being unable or unwilling to do your job properly or to change. It is creating efficient, customer-embracing and evolving businesses that will be a part of and drive the book’s future.
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