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From snuff and quill pens to 21st century bookselling…

December 5th, 2010 | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on From snuff and quill pens to 21st century bookselling…
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Willie Anderson, the deputy chairman of John Smith & Son, gave a talk at Stirling University’s Centre for International Publishing and Communication recently.

The deputy chairman of John Smith & Son is a charismatic man – well-read, well-informed and well-spoken. For an hour he mixed funny stories from his days in the industry with astute observations about the changing face of bookselling and what the future holds for publishers. 

Mr. Anderson gave a brief account of John Smith’s development as a bookseller starting from 1751. This was when their first store opened in Glasgow, when snuff and quill pens were a part of their stock along with books. Then talked about how John Smith’s decided to concentrate on campus bookselling and exit the general market because they could not compete with the bigger chains.

He also explained why they’ve decided to open a bookshop in Botswana and the deal they’ve made with the university to encourage students to buy from the store. The students are given vouchers from the university, which they can spend on books and other educational resources in the bookshop.

The company has a similar arrangement with the University of East London where students, after finishing their first semester, receive an UEL Progress Bursary Card with £500 they can spend at the John Smith’s store.

Mr. Anderson also mentioned, of course, Amazon – the current threat to chain bookstores.In his words their marketing strategy is ‘brilliant’ because they appear to have everything, but this is not the case. Amazon relies on sheer volume to make a profit. ‘They’ve brainwashed you,’ he smiled, ‘but the sales going through the Amazon web page have been extraordinary for John Smith’s so far.’

 When asked how their website is working out for them, Mr. Anderson replied: ‘You need a website, it’s a good marketing tool, but the sales are not fantastic through it. It is not a very good website,’ he stated, somewhat apologetically.

 The future of bookselling? According to Willie Anderson, it will be interesting to see how the industry will develop in order to overcome the current difficulties in the market. It is a time of great change and publishers need to be increasingly receptive and flexible in regards to these new developments, he concluded.