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Yellow-Lighted Bookshops, UK

Bookseller Hereward Corbett talks about selling books and running a festival from his Yellow-Lighted Bookshops.

Where is your shop? This shop is in Tetbury and we have another in Nailsworth, both of which are small market towns in rural South Gloucestershire.

How many people work in the shops? There's me, two regular part-timers and two irregular part-timers, which probably adds up to three full-time staff. We pay our staff quite well, so they earn what a lead bookseller in Waterstone's might earn, but we get them to do a lot. There's virtually nothing I wouldn't trust them to do.

How long have you had the business? We opened the Tetbury shop three years ago and the shop in Nailsworth about 18 months ago.

What did you do before opening the shops? I've been in the booktrade for 25 years. I worked for Dillons Art Bookshop in Long Acre [in London's Covent Garden] until the site was sold, then Blackwell’s, Waterstone's and Ottakar’s. I was a regional sales manager for Waterstone's for six or seven years; I worked out that I've actually been area manager for about a third of their shops at different times. When I was a student I worked in a lot of bars and restaurants. From the point of view of customer service and reacting quickly to things, that's fantastic training. When I'm recruiting, I ask if people have bar or restaurant experience because they're likely to have people skills.

What does a typical day involve? A lot of unpacking, which means we know the stock very well. I add information manually to the EPOS system on the computer. We get stock from publishers through PubEasy, and most customer orders from Bertram's or Gardner's. We also use Amazon, Abe, Ebay and The Book Depository, so there probably isn't a book that we can't get hold of.

What kind of books do you sell? All new but we will order books that are out of print for customers. There is an antiquarian bookshop around the corner and we send customers backwards and forwards.

Where do your customers come from? In Tetbury, our average customer is a 70-year-old ex-diplomatic wife or an ex-colonel and you have to like them and get on with them. The average spend here is £20-25 while at Nailsworth it's about £15. We sold a £375 art book in Tetbury last week. About 80 per cent of our customers are local and we see them about every three weeks to a month. The disadvantage of this is that you have to keep the shop looking fresh by ordering in stock you might not sell, but that’s why we go direct. The ‘quirky’ bookshop model wouldn’t work for us – we’re not like Mr B's [in Bath]. We’re too mainstream.

What is the appeal of your shops? We offer service, enthusiasm, knowledge and -- I hope -- a bit of excitement and of theatre. We do quite a lot with local schools and every day we hear children asking to come in, and that's really nice. The children’s section is about 30 per cent of the sales (that's 20 per cent cash sales with schools on top). Because we are in an affluent area, grandparents think of the traditional classics and will come in and buy the hardback Treasure Island, Winnie the Pooh, Swallows and Amazons. We also stock some pocket-money books that children can buy themselves.

Do you have an online presence? We are hoping to trade online later this year. A lot of our customers have second homes so we send out books to Spain, for example. They use us rather than Amazon because they like us and want to support us. We also send books to customers in Australia, which Amazon doesn't cover.

How would you describe the current state of the trade? So far this month [June 2011] we are trading up by 15 per cent on last year and the Nailsworth shop is even better so I'm feeling quite cheery and optimistic! We have to keep trying new things, like fulfilling online sales from our own stock base. The other thing is for us to build a database of customers to whom we send actual physical mailings.

What aspect of the business do you most enjoy? I like it when customers come back to tell us about a book either they've enjoyed or not enjoyed. I still enjoy opening boxes and finding a book you can be excited about, such as A Country Life about the artist Edward Ravilious. By selling people books that are special you are making their lives better, and that's fantastic. There are not many products you can do that with.

Is there anything you dislike about the job? I'm rubbish at paperwork, so I tend to put all that stuff to one side.

How do you choose stock? We see reps and we buy direct from publishers, which improves the margins but it means there is quite a lot of work in managing stock. Our returns rate is about 15–20 per cent, which is actually pretty good. I listen to 'A Good Read' on Radio 4, but the three most important sources for us are Country Life, the Telegraph on a Saturday and the Spectator. I do look at recommendations in the Bookseller but not at the charts.

Do you organise in-store events? Our first event was about a fox-hunting book and I'd always been vaguely anti-hunting. We got the Beaufort Hunt in here and they were fantastic and hugely appreciated that we'd invited them in so we've kept an events programme ever since. We're doing more events during the year because they are good for profits and help to build our database of names.

What have been this year’s bestsellers? Our Christmas bestseller was The Little Book of Hunting Songs and Christmas Carols, created in aid of the Hunt Staff Beneficiary Society. It costs £15 and we have sold 40 or 50 copies. Other books that have done well for us are the Ravilious series, up-market fiction and nature books. On the other hand, local authors like Jilly Cooper and Katie Fforde don't sell because our customers prefer their books to be written 'properly' (ie. grammatically correct).

What advice would you give to someone considering opening a new bookshop? Use Batch! Go direct to publishers rather than wholesalers and don't do it if you haven't already worked for somebody in a bookshop. And you need to be enthusiastic and upbeat; if you're not, your customers will pick up on that.

Tell me about the Yellow-Lighted Festival. We pitch it as a high-quality, top-end, old-fashioned festival. We began two years ago, and have tried growing to bigger venues, but keeping it small and intimate works best. Cheltenham, Bath and Oxford festivals can be reached easily, but if you can get the same standard of people coming here – and you can – why not spend £7.50 and do it locally? I still work for the Cheltenham Literature Festival, but we are a different sort of business.

Do you make use of any BA facilities? The two reasons we stay in the BA are Book Tokens and Batch. World Book Night was not an unmitigated disaster, but it definitely had an adverse affect on book sales. On the other hand, the PR and publicity over all had to be positive, so I'd say it was a good thing. I also use the credit card and the insurance deals. The IndieBound material is great but not really relevant for our market.

Batch and Your Business

How does Batch help your business? It helps us manage cash flow and it means that you know exactly where you are. In terms of managing what you've spent it's good, and our customers know they'll be paid through Batch. If I can't afford to pay everyone, I immediately authorise all the small publishers and carry over money owed to the larger publishers to the next month. We have two separate shops, but it's all one account. I am a big Batch fan!

Is there anything Batch and the BA could do to make your life easier? Get more suppliers on Batch Financials and Returns, and also enable back order cancellation. There ought to be a completely separate booksellers' organisation that's nothing to do with the chains and focuses on bread and butter things like getting better utility deals and helps with things like rates. That would be really useful.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshops
21 Church Street
01666 500221

17 Fountain Street
01453 832555

Hereward Corbett was speaking to Janet Ravenscroft