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bookshop changes rant

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61947.  Sun Mar 26, 2006 10:00 am Reply with quote

The Qi bookshop used to be a fascinating place. I always liked indie places like those record shops where you go in and get a nasty look if you ask for Radiohead, and instead get directed toward some Richard Hell b-sides or something. The bookshop had that element of bringing something you might not have seen to your attention, but wonderfully lacking in the arrogance that indie music shops cultivate.

I was horrified to hear that the shop's manager Claudia Fitzherbert has been made redundant, and worse still, that the Bookshop is to undergo a series of changes to make it more cost effective.

I don't know how many people on this forum have visited the Qi building, but if you haven't, you have missed seeing one of Oxford's most interesting (if expensive) attractions for the literary-minded. The stock was made up of books personally selected by the staff and manager, many of them fascinatingly obscure and all of them the choices of people who felt they had found interesting, worthwhile reads (or in the case of the children's books, stunning illustrations) that they wanted to share with a public who might otherwise never have come into contact with them. They were organised thematically, in abstract (and pleasantly pretentious) categories such as Obsession, Revenge and Dislocation.

On a recent visit to the bookshop I was told that a great deal of "exciting" changes are to take place, including the removal of some of the more inaccessible categories to be replaced with "Books that have been featured on Radio 4" and "Good Reads" (which I was disgusted to hear described as a Qi version of the Richard and Judy book club) - a member of staff also told me they are being asked to take into stock all the books that they have been sent unsolicited and not to reorder books which had not sold well. I was also informed of the Qi bookshops plan to sell fewer books and branching out into music, DVDs and board games- despite the fact that the shop is very small as it is and there would be not enough space for anything approaching an adequate selection of either music or DVDs.

If the purpose of these changes is to create a bookshop that will bring bestselling and popular books to the public, might I point out the Blackwells, Borders and Waterstones bookshops all within a minute's walk from Qi? They will inevitably have a larger selection and much lower prices. If the purpose of these changes is to attract more customers, they've lost one in me.

62159.  Mon Mar 27, 2006 6:22 pm Reply with quote


Nobody is trying to change the essential attitude of the QI Bookshop, or its eclectic and original nature.

We understand perfectly well that we can't compete with Borders, nor do we want to try. Neither are we selling out to mammon. The shop will not suddenly be stacked to the rafters with Dan Brown.

QI is not an organisation that was set up to make money. We believe passionately in what we do. Everybody in the organisation, without exception, works for much less than they could command elsewhere. Many of us work for nothing at all, and some of us have sunk their life savings into the place.

But we want to survive.

The shop has been trading for 18 months. At the moment, it is losing more money than it did at this time last year. Something, unfortunately, had to be done. It was a case of change or die.

Claudia did not create the QI Bookshop. She ran it. The management of QI had most of the ideas, including the unusual way of categorising the books and naming the shelves. The original stock was selected by a large number of people, the great majority of whom still work for the company.

We are going to change the names of some of the shelves which, though often amusing, are not necessarily always helpful. This isn't the first time we've done this. And yes, we are going to try selling a small selection of DVDs – the QI DVD was our single best-selling item last Christmas, would you deny us that?

Personally, I wouldn't endorse the Richard and Judy remark – it's certainly not the way I would have phrased it, but if Radio 4 is too downmarket for you, I'm sorry.

Nearly all the stock (around 80%) has sold at least one copy, so there is no desire or need to change that much of it. As for the rest, we are having a sale shortly, to which you are, of course, cordially invited.

62175.  Mon Mar 27, 2006 10:17 pm Reply with quote

A book group sounds like a damn good idea to me, and a way of tying club membership in with the use of the book shop (give club members a discount on books purchased at the shop?) I belong to a couple of book groups over here, based at a couple of libraries, and it's a good way of encouraging people to be more adventurous in their choice of reading material and (if the facilitator is good - or people take it in turns to facilitate) introducing them to works they might not otherwise have come across.

62219.  Tue Mar 28, 2006 7:13 am Reply with quote


In fact, there are several book clubs operating at QI already –though none of them have anything to do with Richard and Judy, so I can't imagine where that piece of information came from.

Claudia herself runs one of them, which we hope she will continue to do.

62264.  Tue Mar 28, 2006 10:34 am Reply with quote


I don't especially want to get involved in this thread, although I do have concerns about the shop which I would like to discuss, but I thought I would just make a few points:

*The "QI version of Richard and Judy's Book Club" remark probably comes from a news email sent out to members and staff (which I recieved).
*As far as I can remember (I may be wrong) we haven't removed any categories since the shop opened (apart from the Stephen Fry/Alan Davies shelves), only added them. Changing the categories round might well be a good idea, but at the moment I'm doubtful about what we're replacing the old categories with.
*The QI DVD is obviously perfect for the shop, but somewhat unique. I find it harder to see how we would be able to stock a range of other DVDs (presumably films?) in the space available without either removing a lot of books or making the selection too small.

62300.  Tue Mar 28, 2006 12:48 pm Reply with quote

I feel a bit like Luther.

selling out to mammon

I think that cheapens my argument a little. You're suggesting that I feel that you are choosing money over integrity, I'm suggesting that your decision is going to lead to failure as a business. I want you to survive as well, that's why I brought this up.

if Radio 4 is too downmarket for you, I'm sorry.

I actually resent that. I do listen to Radio 4, which in fact makes me unusual for my age bracket, but I also assume that the staff will be able to tell me if a book has been on Radio 4, and that if they hear about a book that sounds interesting they will order it themselves at their own discretion - the problem with using this as a category is that it suggests a degree of indiscrimination, which is contrary to the bookshop's policy.

I am aware that Claudia did not create the shop, but she was stockmistress from the very beginning, and it is in this capacity that I feel she will be sorely missed - especially as to actually replace her would be illegal as she has been made redundant. Who actually runs the bookshop now, then?

Personally, I feel that what the bookshop needs is better advertising. I live in Oxford, but most people I speak to about the shop (usually to urge them to have a look at it) haven't heard about, have no idea where it is, or think that it's something to do with the University, and often when I've been at the shop I've heard customers say "this is new" when they walk in, even though, as you say, the shop has been around for a good 18 months now. I think what you'd really benefit from as a business is to really go for the browsing attitude and advertise as that, because that's what will make the shop stand out. Big book-music-film-game stores are always going to win on customer accesibility. But that's just the way I see it as a customer...

I really would like to believe that the shop is going to survive, and that these changes will only be beneficial, but you haven't convinced me yet.

62367.  Tue Mar 28, 2006 7:11 pm Reply with quote


All I want to convince you of, is everyone's sincerity.

A lot of people think QI is a great idea. But television controllers, stockmistresses, chefs, managers, researchers, barmen, customers, producers, members and waiters inevitably have slightly different ideas about what that means.

A shop is, by definition, a commercial enterprise. It is not a museum or a hospital. It has to pay its way. There must be a way of achieving this without compromising our basic integrity, but what that is, none of us know.

That's why we're experimenting. For example, your suggestion of advertising is a really good one. All we lack at the moment is the money to carry it out.

So far, the bookshop has been the only part of the QI building with a separate management structure. This proved economically unviable. Claudia is not going to be replaced. The rest of us are just going to have to work a little bit harder.

62370.  Tue Mar 28, 2006 7:26 pm Reply with quote


Thank you for your helpful corrections.

I'm sorry I didn't see the newsletter advertising the 'Richard and Judy' nature of the 'book club' thing. I assume this was tongue in cheek to some extent, but it must be good that everyone is encouraged to read something...

As far as I'm aware, shelf titles have altered from time to time. In my view, though, they have never been altered enough. The Stephen and Alan selections were a harmless and popular bit of fun, for example, but they were never really built on.

As for DVDs, the Complete Blackadder Collection (of which I was the producer) sells hundreds of times better than the QI DVD. Just selling that single title alone would probably push the shop into profit.

You know that I'm more than happy to talk to you about any of this. The shop has never been my responsibility (apart from making general suggestions right at the beginning and providing a list of my favourite books) but I would love to know what you think.

62386.  Wed Mar 29, 2006 2:48 am Reply with quote

I'm a little confused by this. I cant understand why someone would think it makes sense to reorder a book that doesn't sell. I'm also not sure why you would think it strange to include a book that has been sent unsolicited into your stock. Ok it's been a few years since I have been involved in bookselling (I left at the same time as the NBA seeing the effect that it would have on small booksellers) It was always in that time that you would sell any book that came through the door. The number of free books I have sold on to booksellers doesn't bear thinking about. You need to keep your stock turning around but the wholesalers and publishers now have you over a barrel unless you are going to order in high volumes which doesn't seem feasible in this instance.

You do need to move things around regularly to make sure the reason that people aren't buying a particular itwem is because they don't want it, not simply because they don't know about it, A subtle movement promotes browsing.

I also cant see, when it comes to selling books, what is wrong with Richard and Judy. They use their programme to promote books in a way that interests the people that buy them which is a good thing. Ok so you may be aiming a little higher in the bookworld through the QI book clubs but it is still the same thing under the surface.

Good luck with the changes hopefully you can make it work.

62415.  Wed Mar 29, 2006 6:09 am Reply with quote

Thanks lblm.

One thing I can say is that the new staff behind the till (a mixture of volunteer members, management and staff seconded from the rest of the building) are all having a whale of a time.

I love books and I think bookshops should be fun. This does not, of course, mean they cannot, at the same time, have a deeply serious intent.

62438.  Wed Mar 29, 2006 7:42 am Reply with quote

[I've just moved this topc in here from 'General Banter' and replaced its duplicate. Which was here. You know what I mean...]

62542.  Wed Mar 29, 2006 12:44 pm Reply with quote

Advertising doesn't have to be expensive if it's local, and most of the customers who actually walk into the shop will be local. If you've got the budget to produce flyers to promote a particular event, those can be posted free in a lot of places. If you have a book group, you can post notices about it in the local colleges or even in the local libraries.

A full-page ad in the Oxford Mail costs £1020, a quarter page ad £430 and a half page ad £620. They also do a leafletting service, though their website doesn't tell you how much that is - if it falls within the bounds of reasonableness, that would get you into every household in the city, though you don't normally get more than a 5% response at best to such a mailshot.

Are there any local organisations you could specifically target, who would be natural QI viewers? Schools, I have to say, would probably not make any profit for you - book budgets are tiny and they tend to go for discounts. (I speak as the former Education Adviser for Penguin Books in the UK here...) But you could, for example, send an invitation to the members of the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society to come for an evening to browse a display of books you happen to have in stock about local history and architecture, alongside which there are also other fascinating books for sale. Free coffee is an added attraction of course, and if you happened to couple it with a talk by a certain well-known historian you would certainly get some interest :-)

There are plenty of other local societies with particular interests that might be catered for by existing stock, so you wouldn't necessarily have to buy in huge quantities of unsaleable books.

Clubs and societies in Oxford can be found listed here:

You probably have books relating to faith and religion in your stock, so why not invite local churches to an event, perhaps focused on a talk or a book presentation by some well-known local theologian - Oxford is probably bursting with them and at least one of you probably has one as an acquaintance.

With all the comedians you lot know between you, could there not be a comedy event of some kind?

Why not target regular customers and encourage them to keep wish lists? This could be done as simply as a card index file, or could be done online or at least on the bookshop's computer. They can then send friends and family to the shop to buy birthday or Christmas presents that they really want. Records could just be kept under a name, or under a phone number - very easy to find on an Excel file.

Are all these suggestions completely useless or already tried or already rejected?!

62626.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 2:48 am Reply with quote

I love the QI bookshop, and I'm sorry if it's not my place to say anything here, but maybe the new shelves will be helpful because on the few occasions that I've visited the bookshop, I've always felt not-quite-clever-enough to be there.

62631.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 3:43 am Reply with quote

Of course you can say what you like here, dotcom. :-)

I think (and hope) that the bookshop makes everyone feel 'not-quite-knowlegeable-enough', but certainly shouldn't make you not feel clever. The books there are the best of the best - the product of thousands of years of thinking. The idea is that one accepts one's ignorance in the face of such brilliance, which is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and just launches into what's out there, hungry for enlightenment.

In fact, just recognising your ignorance is the most important part of the journey towards wisdom. And 'cleverness' (whatever that is) will rub off on the way I've always thought you can only catch cleverness from people...

62818.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 10:43 am Reply with quote

Gray wrote:
The books there are the best of the best - the product of thousands of years of thinking.

Which is why, lblm, I don't like putting unsolicited books into the stock- they are usually appaling, self-published, spiral-bound affairs, or written by religious cranks, or both. They're out of place in a bookshop which trades on the idea of having selected the very best books.

Dotcom- I never felt clever enough to be there either!


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