Working Together: What Can Publishers Learn from Booksellers?

Bob Johnston, Gutter Bookshop
Bob Johnston, Gutter Bookshop

Owner of one of Dublin’s favourite book shops, the Gutter Bookshop, Bob Johnston has this year opened another store in Dalkey while also heading the Irish campaign for Books Are My Bag. He is chair of the Irish branch of the Booksellers’ Association and has somehow found time in his busy schedule between parts of the city to talk about the BAMB campaign at Publishing Ireland’s upcoming trade event ‘Working Together’. The Indie bookselling phenomenon talks to PI about books, book-selling and what publishers can learn from booksellers!

PI    What is the greatest challenge facing booksellers today?

BJ     Like any other business, it’s about making enough sales to pay your costs so that you can continue to do what you’re doing! Booksellers are certainly struggling to do this at the moment – the rising costs (specifically commercial rents and rates along with lots of little ones like high bank charges) are pitched against a significant drop in book sales in Ireland, even once the internet sales from companies based outside of Ireland are taken into account. Migration to e-books is also a factor but not to the same extent as portrayed in the media, but negativity around the future of books and bookshops certainly eats into the morale of Irish booksellers who are already struggling. Government policy in terms of awarding large library supply contracts to companies outside of Ireland is creating great challenges for any bookseller working in the library supply market.


PI      How would you describe the bookseller-publisher relationship in your experience?

BJ       I’ve always had a very positive relationship with publishers, especially in Ireland where a small industry makes you feel that you’re all fighting for the same cause – to sell as many books as possible! There’s always an element of competition with everyone trying to do the best by their individual company but from working as a buyer for a large chain to running a small independent bookshop I have always felt that the bookseller-publisher relationship has been a good one.


PI       Every collaboration in the industry involves the inevitable sticking point or frustration- what would you say is yours when dealing with publishers in general?

BJ        It’s hard to generalise but the most frustrating aspect for me has always been trying to work with publishers who don’t understand how the book retail side of the business works. I’ve had many conversations with publishers through the years about the merits of using wholesalers (managing large numbers of small accounts doesn’t work in anyone’s favour) to the need to use ISBNs and barcodes to help shops to sell and reorder books. The desire to print books in strange shapes and sizes also amazes me as it just shows a disregard for standard formats that sell so well. But overall, I like to think we do a pretty good job of supporting each other!


PI       You recently headed, as chair of the Irish branch of the Booksellers’ Association the Books Are My Bag campaign. Tell me, how did it go? What are the benefits for Irish publishers to get their authors involved?

BJ      The BOOKS ARE MY BAG campaign was first launched in 2013 as a joint initiative between booksellers and publishers to remind the public of the benefits of physical books and physical bookshops. It has recruited well over 100 high profile UK, Irish and international ‘people of note’ all willing to lend their image to the campaign by being photographed with the iconic canvas bag which has been designed as the centrepiece for the movement. The BOOKS ARE MY BAG bag carries a simple and powerful message allowing readers to display their love and support for local bookshops while encouraging others to do so.

BOOKS ARE MY BAG is of benefit to everyone in the industry in terms of promoting books and book sales but the campaign will only maintain, or hopefully grow, its impetus as long as industry partners support it. An easy way for publishers to support BAMB is by talking to their authors and encouraging them to contact their local bookshops about popping in to support them with the campaign. They can also support it on social media and websites. The 2014 campaign saw a noticeable step-up in terms of visibility and media awareness in Ireland and we hope to build on this again in October 2015.


PI       Would you agree that publishers and booksellers need to forge closer ties in promoting books? What do both of these agents need to do in order to better achieve this in your opinion?

BJ         I think it’s working better than anyone gives it credit for, but yes there’s always room for improvement! First of all we have to insert a bit of realism – not every book can sit on the counter and sell hundreds (“You’d sell loads if you put it on the counter” is one of the commonest comments, “So would everything” is my commonest reply!) So, pick the targets carefully. Support bookshops by offering them launches and events – we have a number of Irish publishers we strongly support across their range because they support us with launches. Publishers need to think about where the best place for that book to sit really is and pitch it accordingly – ‘This would look really good on a Children’s Christmas Gift table’ for example. And know the competition – bookshops never have enough room for all the books they’d like so a bad jacket, weird format, wrong pricing automatically tile it towards the ‘no thanks’ pile. Publishers and booksellers both feel passionately about great books so the key is to share that sense of excitement and enthusiasm. And don’t be afraid to pull the ‘Irish published’ card – Irish booksellers want to support Irish publishers – but they have to believe that someone will take that book off the shelf and bring it to a till to hand over their hard earned cash for it.


Come and hear Bob speak on the BAMB campaign at our trade event Working Together on Friday, 14 November. For more information, go to