Monday, April 26, 2004

W.H. Smith and the art of selling books

The weekend’s papers (business section) were full of stuff about W.H. Smith. For those who do not know, WHS is just about the UK’s biggest bookseller, and therefore the fate or welfare of the firm is of interest to all involved in the book trade – writers, publishers, and readers alike. And it seems that not all is well in the empire.

W.H. Smith was founded in the nineteenth century by a certain H.W. Smith, but that name didn’t trip off the tongue too easily, so the initials were shifted around. Mr Smith had considerable influence on the nineteenth-century book world for several reasons. One, he came to have bookstalls on virtually every railway station in the land, and thus sold vast quantities of books, newspapers, and magazines. Two, he had a highly successful chain of lending libraries – you paid a modest fee and you could borrow a copy of the latest bestseller.

Because of reasons one and two, publishers and writers had to pay close attention to what Smith wanted to buy. And what Smith wanted, it turned out, was bloody long books (three-deckers) with no sex in them, because Smith was an almighty prude. His chief competitor, Mudie, was also against sex. Cyril Pearl, in his highly entertaining 1955 book The Girl with the Swansdown Seat, describes Smith and Mudie as ‘hymn-bawling Nonconformists [who] exercised a censorship as absolute in its way as that of the Holy Office.’ The prejudices and preferences of these two gentlemen coloured the reading matter of several generations.

For many years WHS had, so to speak, a licence to print money, but in the 1990s the business began to go downhill. You only had to go into a branch of the shop to see that there were problems. There is a small branch of WHS some three miles from where I live, and I go in there at least once every week. The staff are all local, and are friendly and helpful, but it soon becomes clear that there is an absence of joined-up management at national level.

For instance, I once saw a large WHS advert in a national newspaper. It must have cost tens of thousands of pounds. One of the items heavily featured was a ‘revolutionary’ new ball-point pen; it had, as I recall, a ceramic tip. So I went into my local WHS and asked to see one. The staff had no idea what I was talking about. On another occasion, I went in and asked a member of staff where the audio books were. ‘Audio books, sir? What are they?’ And so on. I will not weary you with examples.

More serious, perhaps, is the firm’s attitude towards publishers. Time was when a small local publisher, producing local books which were of interest to local people, could walk into his nearest WHS and do a deal with the manager. The manager would stock the books, local people would buy them, local publisher would emerge with a smile. Not any more. Nowadays buying has been ‘rationalised’ and ‘centralised’. And the rational central buyers are not interested in small publishers. They are only interested in the big boys, who will slip them £10,000 for putting a pile of Princess Diana’s Secret Lesbian Love Diary right near the door.

A few months ago, WHS appointed a new chief executive, Kate Swann. Age, 39. Annual salary £1.8m. ‘Operationally, I had expected it to be better run than I found,’ she said. You just haven’t been going into the shop, darling. WHS shares recently fell to a ten-year low, and now the company is subject to a takeover bid. My advice: sell.

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