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A Career In Bookselling

Getting to know the trade
Career Prospects
Role of Bookselling
Variety of Bookshops
Other sorts of Bookselling
Inside the Bookshop
What goes on in a Bookshop
Qualifications required
Pay and Conditions
Finding a job
Your interview
And Finally

Some people start in bookselling straight from school, others come into the business as college graduates, others switch to bookselling later in life, perhaps after bringing up a family. There are attractive and rewarding opportunities in bookselling for all of these people, and this page is designed to give an idea of what these opportunities are, what the work entails, and how to find and apply for suitable positions.

This information is exclusively about careers in the new book trade - not the secondhand or antiquarian trade - because the new book trade is the special concern of the Booksellers Association who produced this information. The Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland - usually more briefly referred to in the trade as the BA - has represented the interests of dealers in new books for about a hundred years.

When you apply for your first job in bookselling, you will not, of course, be expected to have a detailed knowledge of the trade. However, you'll find it helpful to have some idea of how it works, and while we're looking specifically at aspects of the trade from a careers point of view, there are other publications, too, which you might like to read or refer to.


Two books of interest are The BA Guide to Starting and Running a Bookshop - a detailed introduction to bookselling practice and organization - and the directory of bookshops and booksellers published annually as the BA's Directory of Members.

The Directory is particularly useful for job hunters as it gives detailed information on over 3,000 bookshops, classified by town. Among other things, it indicates if a shop is part of a group, whether it has a subject speciality, and what other goods - if any - it sells as well as books. Full addresses are given for all shops and group head offices. Your local public library may have copies of the Directory and the BA Guide on its shelves; if not, you can buy them direct from the BA.

The main journal of the book trade is The Bookseller, published weekly. You can order it through a newsagent or see it at a local library. Reading it regularly will give you an insight into the bookseller's world.

Whatever your age, education or work experience, your first job in bookselling will almost certainly be on the bottom rung of the ladder as a sales assistant. But one of the exciting things about the trade is that promotion can come quickly. If you join one of the major bookselling groups as a new recruit, you can hope to be managing your own branch within three years.

Of course, not every bookshop employee wants to be a manager, and not everyone who would like to be succeeds or succeeds so quickly. But bookselling is a world of increasing opportunity, and the chances are there for those with ambition, drive, commitment, intelligence and enthusiasm.

It is important to understand what bookselling is about. It is not about being artistic or appreciating good literature. It is about selling.

Bookselling is one of the links in the chain that connects the author to the reader. At its simplest, the chain looks like this:

Author → Publisher → Bookseller → Reader

The author has a bright idea, creates a manuscript, finds a publisher prepared to invest money to turn the manuscript into a manufactured book; the publisher persuades booksellers to buy copies for display on their shelves in the hope of attracting buyers; and the bookseller in the shop makes the sale and puts the book into the customer's hands. Of course, that's an oversimplification. Quite often, for example, it's the publisher who has the bright idea for a book and who then looks for an author who can write it. Quite often too, there's an additional person - the wholesaler - who forms an extra link between the publisher and the bookseller. But however the detail may vary, the bookseller's role remains the same: to sell. Bookselling has more in common with selling cans of beans in a grocery than it has with the activities of authorship or publishing or reading.

There's no denying that books are far more interesting and varied products than cans of beans, and good booksellers know the books in their shops individually in a way that no one expects grocers to know their cans of beans. But when all is said and done, you succeed as a bookseller by selling books, just as a grocer succeeds by selling groceries. If you're serious about a career in bookselling, you must be as keen on selling as you are on books.

There are tens of thousands of shops around the country which sell books, but a much smaller number which sell books as their only activity or as one of their main activities. Even within this smaller number there are important differences from one type of shop to another, and these differences affect the bookselling career prospects of the people who work in them.

The first distinction to make is between specialist and non-specialist bookshops. It is the specialist bookshop that most people think of as a 'real' bookshop. It offers a well-chosen selection of books, and has knowledgeable staff on hand to give help and advice if required - not only about the books in stock but also about unstocked books which the customer may be interested in. The non-specialist shop, by contrast, is more of a book supermarket. It may have a good selection of stock, but the customer can rarely find anyone knowledgeable to talk to about the contrasting merits of different books, still less anyone who can give helpful advice about unstocked titles.

You can see that the essential difference between the specialist and the non-specialist bookshop comes down to the difference in the sort of staff they employ and the kind of service they expect to offer their customers.

If you're seeking a career as a specialist bookseller, you need to work in a specialist bookshop, otherwise you may never get the chance to develop or practise any real bookselling expertise. On the other hand, if you are interested in a career in retailing in general rather than bookselling in particular, non-specialist bookshops do offer good opportunities to acquire basic retailing skills which can be turned to advantage in a variety of other retail trades.

The non-specialist bookshop is fairly easy to recognize. Half the shop is likely to be devoted to the sale of stationery and newspapers and magazines or other goods.

Among the specialist bookshops, the main distinction to make is between the chains and the independents. There are several chains of specialist bookshops, each with branches throughout the country, each branch run by a salaried manager. Independents, on the other hand, are generally single shops, often smaller than the branches of the chains, and usually owner managed.

Plainly, independents offer fewer career opportunities than the chains. The top job - managing the shop - rarely becomes available because the owner tends to keep it for himself or herself. And in a small shop with limited staff, the chances of promotion are few. The best long-term career opportunities are in the chains, though promotion often depends upon a readiness to accept a position in a different branch in another town - possibly so far away that you have to move home. Don't rule out independents altogether. There are a few very large ones which do offer long-term career opportunities. Or if you're looking for an interesting job and are not greatly concerned about progressing to a more senior position, then a small independent bookshop can be a very nice place to work, offering you the chance of becoming quickly involved in all aspects of the job.

Shops are not the only places from which new books are sold. Wholesalers have already been mentioned as a possible link in the chain stretching from author to reader. Wholesalers buy books in bulk from publishers and sell them in smaller quantities to bookshops. Most of the work in a wholesale house is a matter of processing orders - dealing with paper work or entering data on a computer, taking in deliveries, collecting together the books for a given order, and so on. There is little or no face-to-face contact with the customer - which in this case, of course, is the bookshop - and only the selection of titles for stock requires a traditional bookseller's expertise.

Internet Bookselling. There are now a number of internet bookselling companies, requiring a slightly different set of skills

Library bookselling (also known as library supply) is another special area of the trade. While many ordinary high street bookshops supply books to libraries, there are a number of companies, without shop premises, which specialize in this work. As in wholesaling, most of the work in library selling has to do with order processing. Additionally, library booksellers service the books in various ways: they add protective jackets, reinforce bindings, stick on library labels. etc. They often employ trained librarians rather than booksellers for such crucial tasks as stock buying. catalogue preparation, and so on.

Another special form of bookselling is practised by the publisher's representative or rep. Reps call on bookshops to try to win orders for their companies' own books. You can find vacancies for reps advertised in The Bookseller.

These other sorts of bookselling offer a variety of jobs - everything from packing to invoicing, from accountancy to systems analysis - but none of them is anything like traditional bookselling in the high street bookshop, and it is this that we shall now concentrate on.

The basic staff structure in most bookshops large enough to have a staff structure at all looks like this:


In larger shops, there may be further staff grades - perhaps a.deputy manager between the manager and assistant manager. And shops with sizeable specialist sections - a children's department, for example, or a religious books department - may have department heads or floor managers, possibly graded between assistant manager and senior assistant . Different shops,of course, organize themselves in different ways and may well use different job titles. But you can expect to find something like the above arrangement forming at least the backbone of the staff structure in any bookshop you look at.

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