PHOTO/ David Prescott
David Prescott, the CEO of Blackwell’s, one of the UK’s leading academic bookstores, takes no prisoners when it comes to his business strategies. He talks to us about the business of book-selling, and what it means in the modern world, particularly in the Oxford setting.
We start off by discussing the changing dynamics of the book industry, particularly the rise of eBooks: “You have to look at the business in two chunks. Most booksellers are in general [popular fiction] book-selling. Then, there is the other side of the market, which is academic. You have to look at them differently, because they are going through different phases at different times. Although the academic was very early to embrace digital to a point, actually it has been very slow to migrate from print editions completely.”
“If you have an e-reader, well that might be fine if you are a literature student, but if you are, say, a politics student, it is not going to render well with all the tables. By the time you get to medical students, an e-reader is just not useful, because it does not represent what is in the text [images and diagrams]. But of course you can make a book interactive, and that is what is happening at the moment.” Especially at Oxford, where our readings lists are very much bespoke, Prescott stresses the inefficiency in digitalising a textbook that only a handful of students would use.
According to a recent study by the Norwegian Stavanger’s University, readers are less likely to be able to recall plot events in a novel that they have read on an eBook over traditional printed copies. Most evidently for fiction literature, the arrival of the Kindle has been very disruptive to the market. But Prescott thinks this new technology is beginning to plateau: “We have seen in the last year or so, it has pretty much settled down. It looks as though twenty at the bottom end and thirty per cent at the top end of the market are using them. I think with the advent of the digital, a lot of people thought it would open up new markets and territories. With hindsight, it was never going to get people who have never read a book before to start reading. So you basically have people who are interested in reading beginning to read across the markets.”
Prescott attended the University of Huddersfield. Just like many of our generation today, he struggled with finding a job upon graduation. Starting from the bottom of the ladder, he has worked his way up in the public sector. He previously worked at an ASDA supermarket near his hometown Nottingham, as well as for Virgin Media. With such a modest background, this CEO appreciates the important roles each individual plays in a business hierarchy. For this reason, Blackwell boasts a decentralised business structure. Prescott places trust in his regional managers to understand their markets well enough to individually tailor their stores to the needs of their community. Even so, it has been a tough few years, but Prescott remains confident: “We have been making a loss for a long time and we are only afloat because of Toby [Blackwell’s] funding. Five years ago, we lost 20 million pounds. […] But we have made a small profit this year which is good.”
Inspired by the likes of John Lewis and Waitrose, Blackwell’s is set to introduce a co-operative model of employee relations and business structure. “In a couple of years’ time, the employees will equally own the business. In terms of taking ownership of something, all of us having a shared destiny and a shared interest in the business, that is a hugely powerful thing and I find this very motivational.” He also mentioned how surprised he was by the strength of the battle against online shopping last Christmas, but he firmly believes that book retailers should not be beholden to the big online stores: “Amazon can do whatever. They are not my concern. My concern is doing what we need to do, like our expertise, our booksellers, our event campaigns, theatre productions, etc. I don’t want to spend my time worrying about what others are doing.” Nevertheless, Prescott is confident that amongst high-street stores, Blackwell’s has a distinct image: “Our customers come here to find something different. If you look at our shop windows, what we display is very different to what WH Smith’s or Waterstone’s would put in their windows.”
A Guardian newspaper article at the beginning of this year has reported of a worryingly sharp decline in the young generation’s fondness of reading for pleasure. Prescott argues that bookshops need to face up to their real competition. “Our competitors are as much Netflix as well as Amazon. We are competing in the entertainment industry.” Prescott engages with current trends and market demands. Last month, the Broad Street store invited Boris Johnson to speak at a book-signing event. They have also frequently hosted theatre productions such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the vast Norrington Room, which currently boasts three miles of shelf space.
I asked Prescott what his favourite book was. “I don’t have a favourite book. I have a favourite bookseller though – Ray – who works downstairs on the ground floor. He is like my Bible. Last year, he recommended some fantastic books to us, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth for instance, when nobody had heard about it, a book that is written in a bastardised version of Old English. And actually it has just won the Man Booker Prize last year.” On his humble CEO desk, his current read is a copy of Blindness by José Saramago, a Portuguese writer in translation: “I have the luxury of a 45-minute train ride so I have plenty of time to read.”
I couldn’t resist the urge to ask, “What is your library like at home?” He chuckled. “We have to prune it. We had a local company come in to build some new shelves for us. I don’t like throwing books away, but we have no choice. But it’s not just the books though – I play the guitar; we have a piano in the living room.”
Prescott took us on a guided tour around the store including their antiquarian section, which currently holds the Fourth Folio of Shakespeare’s complete works valued at £85,000. The Blackwell family has also donated Basil Blackwell’s private library collection to the newly opened Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries.
At the end of our meeting, I just had to wish the CEO of my favourite childhood retreat all the best for the future. With the dawn of modern technology, the nature of reading has changed drastically in the last decade. We have a responsibility to preserve these unique gems of our high streets that bring a more personal and engaging dimension to reading. Prescott, you are our mascot.