'The pressure to be knowledgeable' – interview with a bookseller

14 February 2021

Rustie Baker is the Assistant Manager at Rossiter Books, an independent chain of three bookshops in Monmouth, Ross-on-Wye and Leominster. This is an edited transcript of an online interview he gave with Society of Authors in Wales Monmouthshire Group members in January 2021.

What does a bookseller do?

I’d like to begin by dispelling two myths about working in a bookshop. Firstly, that we spend all our days reading. Secondly, that bookselling is all about books. It is equally about people – interacting with them, identifying and selling what they’d like to read. My experience is that bookshops seem to attract browsers that want conversation and we have regular customers that come in just to talk. So I do feel a pressure to be knowledgeable. It is crucial that you listen to people, create a community, and be impartial on subjects like politics and sport. Fundamentally, a bookseller needs to like both books and people!

Where do Rossiters get their books and which publishers do you stock?

We stock around 6,000 books in each shop. Our main supplier is Gardners, but we also source books from publishers directly. Gardners generally deliver books the following day, but there have been delays caused by Covid-related staff, warehousing and courier problems, plus with the collapse of Bertrams last year, they are now the main wholesaler. Publishers have also been taking longer to deliver their books - about 5-7 working days. But I should stress that all suppliers have worked very hard to limit any disruptions to services that the Covid pandemic is causing.

Our core stock is from the big four - Penguin Random House (PRH), Harper Collins, Macmillan and Hachette. These account for 50% of the UK book trade (PRH alone has about 26% of the UK market, perhaps more now they have bought Simon and Schuster). Some of these publishers distribute other publishers e.g. Bloomsbury, the sixth largest UK publisher, has Macmillan as a distributor.

We can easily track and stock a diverse range of titles from participating publishers and distributors using an administration system called Batch. We pay two months in arrears; can return books if we have had them for more than three months and less than a year. We get a credit for any that we return.

The vast majority of our small press stock come from local publishers and writers whose range covers the areas where our shops are based such as Logaston Press, which focuses on Herefordshire, Shropshire and South Wales. The rest of our small press would come from interesting publishers whose books we are confident that we could sell.

How do you choose your titles and how do you keep abreast of new publications?

Our shops are small, so we can’t carry a huge range of titles. Even for a major publisher we might begin by taking one hardback for each shop, three if a book really shows promise. Much like all our books, if they don’t sell they are returned so that our stock remains fresh. Each store is also customer led - local interest sells better in Ross, Monmouth sells cycling and sports – particularly those from Welsh personalities.

The bulk of our stock comes from meetings with representatives from the major publishers and distributors. We see around eight to ten reps every two months or so for two or three hours each. These meetings work a couple of months in advance and it’s still the best way to find titles and ensure a constant stream of stock.

We read a lot of reviews - newspaper reviews are massively important; as are interviews on the radio and in local papers. It helps bookshop sales for the latter if there is a picture of the cover and details of your latest book in the article. We are increasingly influenced by social media – particularly Twitter and Instagram. #bookstagram is a useful way of identifying titles and sales increase when we post covers of titles we like on Instagram.  The Bookseller we tend to read for book-trade news rather than ordering; and we distribute Booktime to customers.

We also take personal recommendations from trusted customers - about four years ago a 90 year old customer told us she had just read the best biography of her life: The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas by Byron Rogers (Published in 2007). We ordered some copies and went on to sell over 100 copies that year in all our shops after we displayed it on our central ‘bestseller’ tables. We still stock the book on our shelves, and it continues to sell well.

How are books displayed?

There is a short window after publication, and whilst promotion is ongoing, when we can sell the book to readers. Visual stimulus is extremely important to drive sales. They are led by the window displays and central tables.

In all our shops we can do four small window displays or two larger displays, which are themed by staff. We always have a local interest window twice a year. January is dedicated to diet and exercise. February features books on films to capitalise on the Oscars and Baftas. In the run-up to Christmas we display signed copies from the big publishers. Other displays are ad-hoc sometimes led by current events, anniversaries, our interests e.g. translated fiction, or the local demographic. Monmouth is the UK’s first Bee Town, so we reflect this with bee or natural history promotions. We do not sell our window-space to publishers as part of their promotions.

Most titles that have just been published will go onto one of our new title shelves or a central table. In this way we have about a hundred books face-out at one time, but if they don’t shift after a month they will be moved to the sections. There are some customers – particularly tourists or casual buyers – who only select their books from the tables.  Fewer customers browse titles which are only displayed spine-out, so often we would see a reduction in sales.

How important is the cover of a book?

It’s massively important. Sorry, but a book will be judged by its cover. It has to be attractive to customers and if it’s stunningly beautiful it indicates to us that the publisher really believes in it. As images are becoming more and more important on social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram, it is crucial that the cover makes a major impact.  Cover information needs to be short, direct, concise.

Do you stock self-published authors?

Some independents would turn a self-published book or subvention publisher down straight away. I’m sure the same happens with large chains where stock ordering is centralised, so they don’t have the individual freedom to buy in. We’d only stock about one in seven offers if the title is professionally produced and the fit was right. We would not take autobiographies, self-help or any generic titles, but are more likely to accept titles (including some fiction) with local authors, themes or settings. I would advise self-publishers to sell local than at a distance – we regularly turn authors down if they have no connection to the area. 

If we took on a title we’d need to manage our risk very carefully, so we would expect the author to seed features in the local press. We might take one or two copies to begin with and see how it sells after a month or so. Our terms would be on a sale and return basis and we would expect 35% of any sale. Pricing is key, my experience is that this is often overlooked by self-published authors, who have not considered how much the book will have to sell for to make profit for both themselves and the shop. We would immediately turn down an unrealistically priced book. For example, a fiction paperback priced £15-25.00 simply won’t sell, not when most mainstream novels sell for around £8.99 in paperback. I would advise all self-publishers to think very carefully about their pricing and profit-margins before they go to print.

We will also immediately reject any book that has been self-published through one of the Amazon owned and distributed companies, such as Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Firstly, because as an independent company we do not order from Amazon. Secondly, because we would have to sell the book for significantly higher than the recommended retail price.

Is Rossiter’s interested in authors?

Yes, we are - do come in and introduce yourselves.  We host author events and customers do come in and ask if we have books by local authors, including fiction. My own particular interests are: local interest, fantasy, translated fiction, sci-fi, comic books, world cinema and theology.

Your website directs customers to Bookshop.org. What is it and how does it work?

We do not host our own online service and are currently locked down. We now direct customers to Bookshop.org, which is a non-profit service set up as a competitor to Amazon for stores that do not trade online. Our locals can order titles via this page on Bookshop.org and we get 30% of any sales bought through our profile or dedicated to us, along with 10% of general unallocated sales across the site. We can curate and manage reading lists to drive profile and sales – January’s lists feature health and well-being books, politics, Regency romance, pre-orders and the Costa lists.

Can you sum up your approach to bookselling in a single sentence?

We feel that our responsibility is to be well informed, to help our local community and to promote local authors.

The SoA in Wales (SoAiW) is a national group of the Society of Authors which represents and supports Welsh writers at all stages of their career – whether they write in English or Welsh – both professionally and by providing networking opportunities. All meetings are listed on our events pages.

The Monmouth Group is a monthly community social hosted by Margaret Iggulden. It meets on the first Friday of the month from 3-4pm. Any SoA member or anyone interested in joining the SoA is more than welcome to attend.

Any SoA member can start their own local group (virtual or physical) and we can help you get up and running. Please read our local group guidelines if you are interested and contact us with any questions.