Bookseller interview with Jane Skudder

As readers and writers it’s useful for us to understand more about books and how they end up in our hands. I’m therefore very lucky to know a bookseller whose brains I was able to pick on this subject.

Jane Skudder is a bookseller, book blogger and general top notch person. I’ll leave this interview to reveal the rest…

Tell us a bit about yourself and about your work with books.

I was the kid who was always reading ( I was sometimes found hiding under a desk with a book and *made* to go outside at playtime) and studied English Lit at University so a career in bookselling has worked for me. I started with Sherratt & Hughes in Essex in 1987, moved to Durham with Hammicks in 1988 and then on to Bradford with Waterstones (with a year in Stockport in the mid-90s) in 2001. Since I also had a short stint with SPCK in Durham and Dillons in Newcastle I think I have worked for nearly all the major chains now. I started working in general bookselling but have also done about 15 years in campus bookselling. I’m the one who likes students – I miss them now I’m back in a High Street store.

A colleague once described me as ‘bookselling since before the dawn of time’ – cheeky s*d. But it is true. I did have a period of unemployment followed by temping jobs in stores like Our Price Records. It was okay but I was relieved to get back to books.

I recently got to see the brilliant building that you work in. Could you tell us a bit about that as well, and about how it comes to hold a bookshop.

IMG_0582[1]The Wool Exchange building in Bradford is a magnificent place! I feel really lucky to work in such a beautiful setting – it doesn’t seem fair that not everyone has marble pillars, a hammer-beam roof and a statue in their workplace…

The building is Victorian – built 1864-7 – and was a trading floor for whole wool fleeces. The magnificence seems appropriate when you consider that Bradford was, at that time, a rich wool town. We often have people asking if the building used to be a church – there are a lot of Stars of David etc in the decoration and, of course, the hammer-beam roof – but I like to say it was more a temple of commerce. Of course, the gothic revival style also likes to throw all those kinds of symbols in too…

After wool trading ceased in the 1960s the room was used as a music venue and for flea markets. There was, apparently, a plan to demolish the whole building at one point. Luckily Waterstones, and a number of other businesses, moved in so the history of the building can continue – hopefully for many years to come. We have a lot of customers who feel very strongly about the Wool Exchange – our twitter feed regularly features photos. Usually with the words ‘wow’ and/or ‘beautiful’.

Lots more information is available online, obviously. Try here or here. Bradford Council has an archive of photos which include many of the Wool Exchange.

How has bookselling changed while you’ve been doing it?

Back before the dawn of time we didn’t have a computerised database. We didn’t really have a database at all – just drawers full of catalogue cards – and most ordering was done by phone. ISBNs were new-fangled so title and author were the start point for searches on microfiche – I sort of miss the microfiche…. There were few wholesalers so orders from publishers would generally take a week or so to arrive (and you didn’t phone a customer to tell them their book was in until the afternoon as phone calls cost a lot more in the morning!) My greatest bookselling asset is my good memory – back in the old days it was one of the most important things you had to rely on.  We now order for customers from our own warehouse and wholesalers, books can be reserved or ordered for collection instore via our website and the majority of orders take a day or two. With the huge amount of books now available these electronic ordering methods are essential.

Book prices have, of course, changed too. Although possibly not as much as we think. When I first started bookselling paperbacks were usually £4.99 – £6.99. Now they are £6.99 – £9.99. Not bad over nearly 30 years. When I started work the minimum price of books was fixed by a trade mechanism called the Net Book Agreement – there is a school of thought which says it should be reinstated but that seems fairly unlikely.

What hasn’t changed is the need for good customer service. Booksellers, good booksellers, are sometimes expected to work miracles of detection with very little information – and we relish the challenge! In some ways the old-fashioned skills, listening, intelligent questioning and informed suggestion-making never went away. And they are not available the same way online….

With the rise of e-books, what are booksellers like yourself doing to keep readers’ interest and keep them coming into the store?

As we have already established I work in an amazingly beautiful building. There are many stunning bookshops around Britain (and further afield) and it would be a crying shame if they were lost. It would be bad enough to lose the less aesthetically pleasing ones (I did work in one whose main architectural features were breeze-blocks and a corrugated metal roof) so making sure we keep customers visiting us – and spending their hard-earned money – is vital.

As a company we have, hopefully, established ourselves as a trusted source of information about books. Our recommendations – Books of the Month and Waterstones Book Club titles – are chosen by booksellers, rather than paid for by publishers – and customers, I feel, appreciate that. We also have an increasing large presence on social media – our Oxford Street store’s Twitter feed is legendary.

All this is replicated at store level too. In Bradford, like many stores, we have our own Facebook and Twitter accounts which we use to promote books, events and our city in general. We also run a reading group (next up, The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton) and host monthly Magic: The Gathering casual play events. We encourage local schools to bring classes into the store – for a story, a look at the books and, for some, their first experience of choosing and owning a book – and try to organise activities for children during school holidays. (And, as you know, we even let the grown-ups join in and play croquet if they want….)

We also have to expand the range of things we offer in the shop. As well as books our customers want to be able to get cards, stationery, gifts, toys, jigsaws and giftwrap. And vouchers, theatre tokens and stamps….Because we want our customers to read (and don’t believe we have the right to tell them what or how to read) we also sell Kindles.

And finally we have a coffee shop. It used to be a Starbucks but, after they moved out in 2013, we set up our own cafe, Cafe W. These are now in a dozen or so stores around the country – booksellers learning new skills as baristas (although we always knew a lot about cake…..)

What decides which books get onto the shelves and onto the display stands?

In terms of books which are published by companies we are able to set up trading relationships with then the decision to stock a book is, largely, based on the quality of the book itself and on its relevance to public demand. Who would have predicted the need for books on Loom Bands? As I said earlier we don’t rely on publishers paying for space in store – a book needs to stand on its own two feet – although we do get a lot of support from them in the form of ARCs, proofs and support material like kids activities or sample chapters to give to customers.

The actual ordering is done by booksellers based outside of the stores – either in our London head office or regionally – but input from the stores is always welcomed. We know our stores and markets and they know much more than we do about the vast numbers of books published each week.

Displays in store are a combination of head office suggestions (usually for major new titles), our regional stock buyers (who look after a small number of stores in a particular area so their local knowledge is good) and the shop staff themselves. We have recently had a lot of extra display space put into our stores, as tables and small cloth-covered wall display units, so we can highlight any sections, books or events which are relevant to us and to our customers.

To a large extent our customers are the prime reason why we choose to stock or promote a particular book. We are there to sell them what they want to read not to tell them what that should be! We can and should use our knowledge of books to suggest things the customers may have missed but we probably learn as much from them as they do from us!

Do you have any advice for writers who want to see their books get onto those shelves?

This is always a tricky subject. We do have a mechanism for stocking books of particular local interest in individual stores – in Bradford we get a lot of wonderful books about local walks, personalities and, of course, our football team – but it is something which works best with non-fiction. Unless a novel is set in Bradford and explores issues which we can say would be of interest to our customers in particular then it is not really something we can take on in store. It is also quite difficult for us to stock self-published titles – they need to be stocked on a firm-sale basis so we need to be even more confident than usual that the book will sell.

I’m not sure if it is much help to writers but the main thing I can suggest is make friends with your local bookseller! We seem to spend huge amounts of our non-working hours reading so you do need to convince us that your book should make it onto our to-read pile – if it’s good, and something we could see our customers buying, then we will tell you! It is no guarantee that a book will be stocked but we could certainly help to promote customer orders.

You also have a blog about books – how did that come about?

I seem to know an awful lot of bloggers starting with my brother who has been musing about books, films, politics and pets for a few years now. He set me up on his blog as a contributor but I didn’t seem to find much to say – this is odd as I am a great talker in real life, while my brother is fairly taciturn. We can spend a whole day with him around Christmas time and hardly hear him say a word: he then goes home and writes a 1000 word blog entry about the day!

What this did give me was a basic introduction to WordPress so when I decided that I needed a book blog for myself I had a rough idea of what to do. I’m actually quite proud that I set it all up myself (even though I share my home with someone whose job is to give IT support….).

The blog itself was largely set up because I needed somewhere to put book reviews – as I said earlier publishers are very supportive to booksellers by sending ARCs and proofs, so it is only polite that we share our thoughts on those books. I also had hoped to get some involvement from my Book Group at work but they are all quite shy at the moment. It is a blog I share with a colleague – although she hasn’t had a chance to post much recently – and Rob (my other half and tame IT support person) also does some reviews. Hopefully this means we will cover a range of subjects and genres as Bex is a big chick-lit fan and Rob loves his travel writing. That said I will request proofs of all kinds of things – I am reading to recommend to all our customers not just the ones who share my tastes – so I am always finding new stuff to enjoy.

Most of my reviews end up being pretty enthusiastic. The worst I put on the blog are the ‘damning with faint praise’ ones – if I haven’t enjoyed a book I will usually just let the publisher know directly. And even then I can usually see customers that I would recommend the book to since we all have differing tastes.

Do you have any favourite posts from the blog that you’d like to point people towards?

I’m rather fond of the one for Season to Taste and I believe Bex’s post on books to read after John Green is the most popular. The book I was most surprised to enjoy was Birdbox as I am not a horror reader generally and, it appears, my favourite authors overall are Hugh Howey and Caitlin Moran.

Last question – what have you enjoyed reading recently?

I have just finished reading Harry’s Last Stand – a fascinating polemic against modern society by Harry Leslie Smith. He was 91 when he wrote the book and lived through the Depression and World War 2 – an interesting, surprising man and, fingers crossed, if he is in the UK for the paperback later this year we would love to have him do an event in Bradford. The Girl With All The Gifts was an unusual take on zombie novels, David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks was as dazzling as everyone says and I did read rather a good steampunk short story collection…..


* * *

Thank you very much Jane. That’s certainly given me more insight into how book shops work.

If you’d like to read more from Jane then please go and check out her blog. And if you’re in the Bradford area then why not go check out the Wool Exchange for its coffee, architecture, books and wonderful bookselling staff.