Why it was fine that Sainsbury’s won The General or Chain Bookseller of the Year Award

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Children’s and YA author Nicola Morgan has written a funny and interesting blog post about Sainsbury’s and the injustice of it winning the Martina Cole General or Chain Bookseller of the Year Award at the Bookseller Industry Awards this year.

This was, I’m pretty sure, the first time that the award had gone to a supermarket chain, and even in the course of the award event there was scorn being poured on the judging panel’s decision by various people on Twitter. The most cursory Googling reveals that the controversy continued the next day and beyond, and The Bookseller felt it had to justify the decision of the judging panel. But while I admire Nicola Morgan’s books and idealism, I have to disagree with her. I think Sainsbury’s, who managed to create a really big jump in book sales in a very challenging market, was a worthy winner of this particular award (and there are other awards that go to other, and other kinds of booksellers, in the same awards ceremony).

Don’t get me wrong. At Nosy Crow, we love all our retail customers and recognise and celebrate daily the role they play in the complicated and expensive business of getting physical copies of our books in front of parents and children. And we love an independent bookstore and a specialist bookselling chain at least as much as the next person.

However, it is undeniably impressive that Sainsbury’s achieved a significant increase in physical book sales predominantly from bricks-and-mortar shops at a time in which print sales are falling; one in every four books (and one in every five children’s books) is bought online in the UK; and ebook sales are growing rapidly and appearing to displace print sales.

Being a chain bookseller is exceptionally tough at the moment. Waterstones was, at the time the prize was awarded, for sale. Foyles (who won last year) and WHS (whose corporate goal is to be the nation’s most popular newsagent and stationer as well as bookshop, so isn’t quite as specialist as the other book retailers in this paragraph) are, of course, real contenders. Happily (very happily) for the book industry in the UK, Waterstones looks likely to be a powerful contender for the future as the acquisition of the chain progresses. Ottakars, Borders/Books Etc and British Bookshops and Stationers are no longer with us. Other book specialist alternatives might have been Book Warehouse (who sell mainly but not exclusively remainder books) or Oxfam Bookshops (who sell mainly but not exclusively second-hand books), but I can’t imagine that Nicola Morgan would have celebrated either of those chains winning.

And the challenges to chain bookselling are not unique to the UK: Barnes & Noble is changing hands and Borders filed for bankruptcy in the US, and the Red Group (owners of Angus and Robertson and Borders) is in administration in Australia.

Just to remind ourselves of what the bookselling landscape is looking like at the moment (and the importance of supermarkets), here’s the graph of books purchased in the UK by source of purchase (with thanks to Books and Consumers):

This graph also points up the relative strength of Sainsbury’s bookselling performance relative to the performance of supermarkets in general between 2009 and 2010.

In this context, the growing role of Sainsbury in the UK bookselling market is an important one. The decision by Sainsbury – or any other supermarket – to back a book can entirely transform the financial fortunes of a book. At Nosy Crow, we were really delighted and excited when the small team of dedicated children’s book buyers at Sainsbury’s backed several of our first titles, including risky ones: a debut novel (Small Blue Thing) and a series that is an innovative mix of fiction and doodling from an author/illustrator team with a limited track-record (Mega Mash-up). We’ll make more money on these books and so will the authors: we committed to more Mega
Mash-ups on the basis of retailer response to the first titles and Sainsbury’s was part of that.

Yes, the discounts to supermarkets are deep, but the volumes are high. The advances paid to adult blockbuster authors in particular are entirely predicated on strong supermarket sales. As a very rough estimate, I’d say that children’s authors/illustrators are earning perhaps 30p on most books sold via Sainsbury’s, so a sale of 3,000 copies might represent £900 in royalty earnings – which has to be seen in the context of the ALCS’s finding that the median annual author wage is £4,000 (and less, I would think, for children’s authors). This compares with 45p per book if the same book were sold via an independent, so the same author would have to sell 2,000 through that channel to make the same £900.

Sainsbury’s doesn’t make any claims to be promoting literacy or increasing access to books on its website statement of its goals (though, for the record it sponsored Book Start at a point when the scheme was under threat before the government funded it). From my perspective, though, anything that increases access to books (and I am writing this in the context of the recent report that three in ten households don’t contain a book, and one in three London children doesn’t own a book) and that makes buying books as easy and as unintimidating as buying bread, is a good thing.

Of course, I’d be delighted if Sainsbury’s took up Nicola Morgan’s author-touring book bus idea. I doubt they will. Sainsbury’s is a business. It allocates shelf-space and prominence to books (and everything else) on the basis of how well they sell in a particular shop. It doesn’t owe publishers or authors a living: its purpose as a business is to maximise shareholder value. If it can do that by selling books as well as bacon, I for one think that’s great. And if giving Sainsbury a particular prize for bookselling makes other retailers for whom it’s relevant think about what they might do to earn the award next time around, so much the better.


13 Responses to “Why it was fine that Sainsbury’s won The General or Chain Bookseller of the Year Award”

  • Great post. Anything to help spread and increase access to the word can only be positive. However, it will always be impossible for me to think of Sainsbury’s as a bookseller! I hope that with the recent takeover at Waterstone’s, they will up their game and bring back: expertise, friendliness and passion which should be the fundamental principles of high-street bookselling.

  • But Sainsbury’s ARE a bookseller. I’d guess they are up there in the top 10 for most general trade publishers as customers in terms of the revenue they generate.

    I think we all have high hopes of Waterstones under new management.

    And we want to continue to see thriving independent stores.

  • I have been encouraging my vampire publisher to try to sell the series in supermarkets. Quite apart from the issue of my livelihood (and I’m more interested in that than anyone) I am keen that children get the books.

    Many children are never taken into bookshops, but most are taken into supermarkets. Even if the book is hugely discounted (indeed, it will only sell to the financially-pressed parents if it IS hugely discounted) I’d rather a child had the book than didn’t have the book. I’d rather 1000 children had the book and I had £300 than 200 children had the book and I had £300. It’s not ALL about money. I would not necessarily take the same view with all books. But then, a publisher doesn’t sign over a whole list to a supermarket, it is a title-by-title decision. Isn’t it?

  • It’s entirely a title-by-title decision, so you can decide what you don’t want to offer supermarkets. But you can’t MAKE them take anything either.

    To be clearer on the royalty maths: using the same calculation, I estimate an author/illustrator would get 45p per book if it were sold through an independent bookshop (rather than 30p per book if the book’s sold through a supermarket).

    I’ve added this to the blog post itself.

  • Fascinating graph. I just twittered (@frontofstore) some stats from it – 2008-10: Chain bookstore sales DOWN 21%, online book sales UP 52%, bargain bookshops UP 27%. In just 3 years.

    Interesting also to note static share at supermarkets, that’s as I’d have guessed. But Indies appear to be benefiting not one jot from the chains’ decline.

    Good post, Kate – much of the opprobrium around this reflects that there was hitherto always a “mass market” award and a “specialist chain” award (they changed names each year, but the gist was the same). Now, with so few players, there’s only one award to be won.

  • I totally agree – anything that increases access to books is valuable. As a bookish mum I love taking my kids to independents and browsing through children’s departments but I also have to go to the supermarket every week. If I buy a book from the supermarket (which I often do as the preferable bribery tool for good behaviour) it’ll never replace a visit to a good bookshop, which is done for fun rather than necessity. As long as independent bookshops continue to focus on creating the enjoyable experience of book shopping, then the two should be able to coexist. And for kids that don’t get taken to bookshops and libraries, then at least they do get the chance to be bought an affordable book along with the bread.

  • I think the kerfuffle could be avoided, if there was a new award. ‘The Supermarket that sells lots of Copies’ something like that, but sounding a bit better.
    Lots of copies, not many books of course …and Sainsbury’s aren’t booksellers and wouldn’t pretend to be. Just as in our bookshop we sell penguin mugs, but would feel embarrassed if given a crockery award.
    No problem with supermarkets selling as many books as possible, for the good reasons given above. Supermarkets certainly sell a lot of books, why not recognise it? Nonetheless, it would be a pity if in so doing, the awards for smaller dedicated bookselling businesses were shaded out. Those moments of publicity can make a real difference. This one, for Sainsbury’s is just garnish.

  • Whilst I applaud the fact that selling books in a supermarket is making books more accessible to all involved…how much thought actually goes in to what books are bought in said supermarket?
    In my experience, I don’t know anyone who goes in to a supermarket to browse and mooch about. I go in because I have to go in. I need food and I need it now. A supermarket is not a sociable place for books. You can’t exactly sit down in your trolley to browse through a book. If the prize was just about increasing the sales of books then yes, Sainsbury’s deserved to win. But it’s not, it’s about the environment of bookselling and getting expert advise and recommendations.
    As a children’s bookseller, I get so many people come up to me every day to ask my advice on buying a book, often because they’re worried about the content of a book their child might be reading- and rightly so! I find it worrying that Sainsburys can’t provide that and am concerned that sales has won out over service. We still have independent bookshops and chain bookshops because there is a need for that level of service and knowledge.
    Perhaps it’s fine if the shopper wants to buy the latest Jamie Oliver or a mass market fiction paperback for bedtime/holiday reading but there are some serious issues in supermarkets selling children’s books and for the time being, until these issues are addressed I can’t see why Sainsbury’s should be awarded over other places which provide a better reading experience.

  • Mark –

    I smiled at your crockery award analogy. But the thing is that while your shop doesn’t, I am guessing, make a difference to the crockery industry, Sainsbury’s is important to the book publishing industry: they ARE a bookseller in a real and substantial way that you are not a crockery seller.

    I don’t think that this award overshadowed others given on the night, though the negative publicity it got subsequently maybe eclipsed the achievement of others because this award came under the spotlight in the way that the others didn’t.

    Many booksellers (people and shops that sell books… and, well, perhaps a few mugs) were given awards: Georgina Hanratty and Micha Solana were both awarded prizes as Young Booksellers of the Year; Tales on Moon Lane won Children’s Independent Bookshop of the Year; Waterstone’s won Children’s Bookseller of the Year; and Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights won Independent Bookseller of the Year (while Gutter Bookshop and Mainstream Trading Company were highly commended).

    You say it would be OK for Sainsbury’s to win the award for The Supermarket that Sells Lots of Copies. In fact, until last year, there there WERE two awards given, one for High Street Retailer and one for General Retailer. The Bookseller says it made the change for logistical reasons – there were too many awards and they cut them back. Perhaps it was also about sponsorship: this is, after all, The Martina Cole General or Chain Bookseller of the Year, and I for one don’t know how the finances of the awards work. Amalgamating the two prizes did, as The Bookseller acknowledges, “create strange bedfellows”, and the shortlist this year was Asda, Foyles, Waterstone’s, WHS and Sainsbury’s. Of these, I think that Sainsbury’s, on the basis of sales growth, is a worthy winner.

  • Lucy –

    The criteria for this award were clear (and are mentioned in The Bookseller piece to which I linked).

    There’s no mention in the criteria of expert advice or recommendations (though there is a reference to bookselling “environments”).

    There were many other awards given (see my comments to Mark, above) that recognised and celebrated the value of expert advice and recommendations.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “there are some serious issues in supermarkets selling children’s books”. In my experience, supermarkets are particularly cautious about content in children’s books, because they are concerned about the possibility of customer complaint. They play very safe. They are looking for books that are easy to sell… because they’re easy for their customers to buy without any recommendation or other intervention from an expert.

    I entirely agree that you don’t go to a supermarket to “browse and mooch about”. You go into a supermarket to buy stuff. If, as well as buying beans and bacon, you buy books, that’s better, I think, than NOT buying books, particularly if you are a person – and there are many – who find the prospect of browsing and mooching about in a bookstore dull or intimidating (or both) or something that you quite simply would never consider doing.

    I do not think that it is easy to argue that people who bought books in Sainsbury’s would, had those books not been available in Sainsbury’s, have sought them out in their local chain bookstore or independent bookseller.

    Other booksellers (people and companies) won prizes based on other criteria, and we should congratulate them. Sainsbury’s won this particular prize because they increased their sales – and their market share – in a very difficult market. I think more books ended up in more homes because Sainsbury’s stocked them and managed them well.

  • ‘I do not think that … people who bought books in Sainsbury’s would, had those books not been available in Sainsbury’s, have sought them out in their local chain bookstore or independent bookseller.’

    Absolutely. Surely the relationship between Sainsbury’s and a bookshop is similar to that between Sainsbury’s and a delicatessen? If we care about quality food, we buy basics in a supermarket and fresh pesto/cheese/ham/pasta/whatever in a delicatessen. Many people don’t care or don’t have the money for good food and buy everything in a supermarket. They might try pesto if it’s in a supermarket but wouldn’t be drawn into a delicatessen to get it. Same with books – people who don’t care to go to a bookshop or don’t have the money might buy a book in Sainsbury’s but otherwise may not buy one at all. For children, the supermarket may be the only chance to get a book, as it may be the only chance to try a new type of food.

    Disclaimer: I’m not talking about whether books should be considered a commodity similar to food (though clearly in marketing-land they are) – that’s a different conversation.

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