Article for Bookseller’s Association Magazine
by Iain Dale, Managing Director of Politico’s
So why did I do it? Why, why, why did I forego the delights of political lobbying and a company Audi for the delights of the book industry, a minuscule income and a five year old Rover? Probably for the same reason as the rest of the industry is hooked on the trade.
The concept for Politico’s was conceived about four years ago following a trip to Washington DC, where I found a superb political themestore, which although it stocked very few books, was a place of pure delight for a political anorak like me. If it worked in Washington, I thought, why shouldn’t it work in London? My thinking progressed and the dreaded business plan was commenced. Once I had done the financial calculations, redone them, and redone them again, I decided to take the plunge and in May 1996 the world of political lobbying was left behind. And then the problems started.
Although an expert on the world of politics, my only experience of the book trade was as a customer - and not a very impressed one at that. I decided from the outset that I would run my store the way I wanted to and avoid what I perceived as some of the tired ways of the book industry in general.
I have firmly believed that the future in retailing is to specialise and build up customer loyalty. If candle shops can succeed, then why not a political bookshop? But the history of political bookshops is not a particularly happy one. This is mainly due to the fact they have almost entirely been devoted to one side (i.e., the left) of the political spectrum and thereby at a stroke offended at least 60% of their potential customers. I can remember several trips to Colletts feeling a sense of mild irritation (and sometimes not so mild) that they refused to stock anything to the left of Tony Benn - at least, that’s how it seemed. So the first decision was made - to stock the whole gamut of the political spectrum, from Marx to Thatcher.
I decided from the outset that such a shop could only work if a site could be found within a few minutes walk of the Houses of Parliament and in late August we eventually found site just off Victoria Street. It even had a mezzanine balcony level where we decided to install a coffee shop with a live cable TV link to Parliament.
We wanted to open in late October to give us a run at Christmas and time to prepare for the coming General Election campaign. But the lease negotiations dragged on and on leading to all sorts of problems with stock ordering. In the end we opened our doors for the first time on February 18 1997. Even then our lease was not completed until mid June. I managed to remain sane despite the obvious risks.
Since we opened I am told we have received more media coverage than any other independent bookstore in living memory. Opening just before the election campaign obviously helped. At the last count we had been featured on 22 TV programmes and I had done 33 radio interviews as well as the features in every national newspaper. If I had known that was going to happen I could have saved a good proportion of a vastly overspent advertising budget.
Learning about the book trade has been an illuminating experience. My suspicions that all might not be smooth were aroused when having written to more than 100 publishers asking for their politics catalogues I received replies from only 15. A ring around drew another 15. My preconception that publishers existed to sell books to booksellers was obviously a mistake. Silly me. In the end I gave up and placed my entire stock order through Gardners, whose support and patience I could not have done without. What I may have lost on discounts was more than made up for in the fact that I didn’t have to worry anymore. Five months down the line I am naturally dealing direct with the main political publishers and gradually getting the discounts right, although the words ‘blood’, ‘getting’ and ‘stone’ come to mind.
Where wholesalers like Gardners score heavily is on delivery times, although for a specialist store like Politico’s even their range of titles is not large enough to rely on them completely. One of my frustrations as a customer was the time customer orders take. My blooding at the BA annual conference was to ask the question: If wholesalers can deliver next day, why do publishers have such difficulty with the Just In Time concept? Still no answer, although one or two I think are now beginning to address the problem.
In April Robson Books published my first book - a weighty tome of Margaret Thatcher quotes (the second one on Tony Blair follows in September). The experience of having my own book published has perhaps given me fresh insight into the whole book industry and its processes. It is easy for a bookseller to blame all his woes on the incompetences of publishers, but they too have their own pressures which we should perhaps recognise more.
One thing I hadn’t bargained with was the possibility of a law suit even before we had opened. Thank you Neil Hamilton. Like many others I was lucky enough to receive a letter from Mr Hamilton’s solicitors ten days before we opened our doors. This was perhaps even trickier for me than for others because one of my shareholders is a director of Fourth Estate, the publishers of the book ‘Sleaze’ which had offended Mr Hamilton so much. We took legal advice and advice from the BA but in the end were left with little alternative but to stock the book for fear of looking ridiculous if we didn’t. Despite it being one of the worst examples of tabloid journalism I have ever read, it has been one of our bestsellers ever since!
In many senses we are not really a typical bookstore in that we sell many things apart from books - videos, CDs, tapes, art, mugs, political giftware - even candles. If it’s political, we’ll stock it. Luckily for us, the demand we anticipated has been there. Sighs of relief have been breathed because despite the best worked financial calculations and business plans, we had nothing to compare the concept with. But after five months we are still here and now looking forward to getting our web site and mail order catalogues up and running. But if there is one lesson we have learned, it is not to try to do everything at once.
But what of the long term? Most independents fear the strength of the chains. Specialist stores are not immune to these fears but no one should fear fair competition. Our main concern is being able remain independent but at the same time being able to grow the business and expand without either having to either borrow huge sums or bring demanding new investors into the business. Time will tell. I’d happily settle for still being here and enjoying it in five years time. Sometimes you just know when you’ve found your niche in life.
Caption for picture
By appointment to the Prime Minister - Politico’s Deputy MD John Simmons delivers 150 copies of the book “Victory” to Number Ten