I was excited about doing a placement at Word Power Books, an independent and self-proclaimed radical bookshop in central Edinburgh, because there are books there that you would never find in large chain shops: bilingual children’s books; self-published magazines and pamphlets; and fiction from around the world. I was also keen to see what life was like on the other side of publishing.
My work at Word Power has been varied. I got to design new category signs, to make the shelves easier to navigate. I served drinks to guests at the launch of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon (chosen as a Waterstone’s 11 title). I also did some stocktaking, which helped me to get familiar with a lot of the shop stock, and tempted me to buy a few books.
Mainly, I have been observing rep meetings. It’s interesting to see how a potential book is pitched to a bookseller, and just how quickly they will flick through each AI sheet before making a decision (each has about three seconds). Apparently, the three most important things that a bookseller looks for are the price, the cover and the format, so AI sheets that have this information displayed clearly will stand a better chance of being picked up.
Each rep had a different selling technique. Some would try to push for the manager to take books she wasn’t sure about. Others were more relaxed, knowing the type of books she was interested in, and let her make her own mind up, happy to take an order for just one book if that’s all she was interested in. The reps often commented on how friendly it was in the bookshop, compared to others they had been to.
I have found out a lot through working in a bookshop that I never would have otherwise. For instance, although a publisher might think a pure white cover hardback book looks nice, every bookseller knows that within 5 minutes of it being out on display, it will be grubby with fingerprints and dirt. When designing book covers, I had never considered practicality along with aesthetics before.
Word Power have been keeping up with the times and have introduced a website, much like Amazon, where you can order books with the click of a button that they will dispatch. I was surprised to find that their orders come from all over the world, even from as far away as Australia.
Doing work experience in a bookshop has made me feel like I have a more rounded knowledge of the book trade. Before, I had only ever considered things from a publisher’s point of view, and not thought about how a bookseller makes a living.
When I was at the London Book Fair in April, it seemed like every sector of the publishing world was separated, not listening to the concerns of each other. Authors lamented: “We’re expected to speak to our readers via social media, but publishers don’t teach authors how to and don’t ask them if they want to”, while publishers advised us to “Always go with the self-promoting author”.
After working in Word Power, my opinion is even stronger now that publishers and booksellers should be communicating more if they want to navigate the challenges of the digital age.