Now here’s a fascinating story from the finance section in yesterday’s Guardian. Anyone who follows anything to do with the booktrade will know that it is in crisis. In fact, there has barely been a period during the past twenty-odd years when it hasn’t been.
But the current pressures are of a different order: the abandonment of the Net Book Agreement (which enabled book discounting), online and supermarket competition, rising costs, the emergence of electronic readers, and jittery investors. Last year Borders closed their operation in this country, Waterstone’s owners, the HMV group, are pressing directors to sell off the book business, and hundreds of smaller independent booksellers have closed.
What does one of the longest-established family-owned academic booksellers — Oxford-based Blackwell’s — do in the face of such a perfect storm? In a bid not just for survival but for a continuing future as an independent bookseller, current owner Toby Blackwell plans to hand the business over to an employee-ownership trust.
This is really significant news for the booktrade — especially if employee-ownership at Blackwell’s manages to produce similar trading figures to those achieved by John Lewis and other staff-owned busineses, which recent research by the Cass Business School identifies as significantly out-performing shareholder-owned companies. There are over 100 ‘co-owned’ businesses in the UK, according to the Employee Ownership Association and together they have a turnover exceeding £25bn a year.
Co-ops, mutuals and not-for-personal-profit societies of course have a long tradition not just in radical bookselling, but also in academic publishing. But to the best of my knowledge the proposed employee partnership at Blackwell’s will mark the first time that employee ownership has been adopted in mainstream bookselling.
I have a soft spot for Blackwell’s. Just over twenty years ago I worked for a book distribution co-op. What we sold was low margin and for the most part ultra-uncommercial — multicultural educational resources, international development studies, campaigning anti-sexist, anti-racist literature, even indigenous African and Asian publishers which otherwise would have remained undistributed in the UK. Yes, I know, great business plan, but it was like that then… It was my job to ‘rep’ these titles to Blackwell’s in Oxford — and I never failed to come back with a bulging order file. Happy days. Good luck, Blackwell’s.