Wednesday 8 June 2011

Books, bacon and chain bookseller of the year - by Nicola Morgan

Gosh, how proud I am of my favourite supermarket! It has a fantastic selection of bread, and beans and bacon and even lots of other foods that don’t begin with b. Yes, I know: man or woman cannot live by bread (or beans, bacon and baking powder) alone, but fear not because Sainsbury’s has just been honoured for its bookselling wondrousness. Yep, it’s won the “Martina Cole General or Chain Bookseller of the Year” award.

Admittedly, this surprised me a little. I tried to think where the books were in my large branch of Sainsbury’s and I couldn’t quite remember. I thought that might be because when I go to Sainsbury’s I’m usually focused on the beans etc and don’t expect to see books. And the brain often doesn’t see what it doesn’t expect to see.

Anyway, according to the citation, this award was for “reinvigorating book zones, increasing book sales by more than 33% and attracting new book buyers to the market.” Book zones? Fab!

Despite knowing that you can’t believe everything you read in the papers, I was cautiously optimistic when I went to look at my nearby Sainsbury’s. After all, it’s big and has very recently been refurbished, so it must have a book zone.

And there, behind the clothes, it was! Just the green bit, as the rest is toys, but it was verily an actual cardboard shelfy thing, all for books. Well, three titles. And did you spot that it has some batteries hanging from it, just in case you need those for your torch while reading under the bedclothes?

But no! Silly me. This wasn’t the real Book Zone, merely the taster, the introduction to the gloriousness of the real Book Zone.

Look! Books! Please don’t be surprised that it took me a while to find. It was right at the back of the shop, in a corner. I’d literally never seen it before.

Also, I didn't notice at the time but if you look very closely at the top right hand corner of the photo, you'll see a big sign: WE'VE DUMPED THE JUNK! Meh. (By the way, yes, that is my shopping trolley in the shot and yes they are my bottles of pink Cava. I got those from the Wine Zone.)

Anyway, no time to lose. I measured the Book Zone: three metres long, with six shelves. I counted the books. There were between fifty and sixty titles – it was difficult to count because everything was a bit of a mess and people kept coming past to get to the DVDs. There were the forty best-selling paperbacks (I’m not too sure whose chart that was) and a few scruffy picture books, Jeremy Clarkson’s latest and some pink things that looked like cupcakes. Oh, and two cupcake recipe books.

I went looking for something to compare this with. Now, I could have chosen crisps or yogurt, each of which occupied metres and metres and metres of shelving and countless products, but a) that’s a lot of measuring and counting and b) it would have been unfair to books and c) they don’t begin with b. But, just round a few corners, was the bacon. The Bacon Zone.

I did some measuring and counting again – I was quite enjoying this, along with the surreptitious photography. (Not that I think I was doing anything wrong, just that photographing bacon is not a very impressive thing to be seen doing.) Three metres, six shelves, and 55 products. (Also a bit difficult to count, not because people kept coming past to get to the books but because people kept wanting to buy the products, which hadn’t been a problem in the Book Zone.)

Well, zone-wise, books and bacon pretty equal, possibly even a few more products in books than bacon. But I needed to be sure. And sure enough, round the corner, a whole other Bacon Zone. And, what’s more, in pride of place at the end of an aisle. Clearly they really wanted to sell this bacon stuff. Victory to bacon! Maybe Sainsbury's are going for the Dan Brown Bacon Retailer of the Year award.

So, “reinvigorating book zones, increasing book sales by more than 33% and attracting new book buyers to the market,” eh? Give me a break. That book zone needed a rocket up it. There were no book sales going on while I was there and no book buyers at all, let alone new ones. Actually, a man in shorts did come by and lingered but I think he was hiding from his wife. He didn’t buy anything.

If Sainsbury’s wants to enter the book-selling game with a mission to “attract new book buyers”, that’s great. After all, we’ve just heard that 30% of UK households own no books. But you do that by supporting and enthusing libraries, schools and families with your passion for books, not by filling a dark corner with the top forty, chucking in a few scruffy deep discounted publisher promotions, some cupcakes and Jeremy Clarkson.

Listen to me, Sainsbury’s: people come to your stores for the bacon and the beans. (And in my case the very cheap and decent pink Cava at £4.89 a bottle.) If you really care about books more than bacon, then here’s an idea: fund book-buses, full of the lovely books you want to sell, and take authors into schools. Pay the authors a reasonable fee and we’ll talk about books, not just ours, but any books, good books, fascinating books, inspiring books. We’ll do the enthusing, we’ll display the knowledge and the passion and we’ll help you sell the books. Just think of the good publicity you’d get for your lovely supermarket, too.

Then, you really would deserve the Martina Cole General or Chain Bookseller of the Year. In the meantime, frankly, you don’t.

By the way, this evening I'm having my launch party for Write to be Published. In a bookshop. But not Sainsbury's. The Edinburgh Bookshop. I did buy my fizzy wine from Sainsbury's because Vanessa doesn't yet stock it. Come on, V, what are you waiting for? You could be the Nicola Morgan Cava Retailer of the Year!


catdownunder said...

Ah - your book bit is bigger than the book bit in our local supermarket. Our book bit is smaller than the bacon bit. I am afraid it says more about the relative importance of books in some sections of Australian society than the fact that there is an excellent indie about twenty metres away - a fact some locals ignore in favour of the Big W about 2km down the road. Sigh.

Kate Wilson said...

Hello. I replied to this in a blog post: I think it's OK that they won.

Stroppy Author said...

Surely the issue is whether they actually do sell a lot of books? Nicola's one store is not much of a sample. I haven't checked my Sainsbury's, but Waitrose has quite a few and indeed gave up selling DVDs and put more books on the shelves.

If Sainsbury's having boosted book-buying, that will be shown in statistics which - presumably - the judging panel had access to. And if they did do it, their entitlement to the prize should not be dependent on what we feel about supermarkets selling books, as it's a purely financial measure. Or does the award claim to make an objective judgment about the qualitative nature of the bookselling?

No doubt they didn't sell many copies of War and Peace. But there is a distinction now between impulse purchases and considered book purchases, surely. If I want, say TS Eliot's poetry, I'll go to Blackwell or order from Amazon. If a person saw Jeremy Clarkson's book in Sainsbury's they might buy something they wouldn't otherwise buy. And that's how Sainsbury's works. Its success or otherwise must be judged by its own aims.

Sponsoring book buses would fall under their outreach and community support work and is not part of sales in shops - even if they were going to do it (doubtful) it shouldn't replace book zones.

Sue Purkiss said...

Don't know about the statistics and haven't thought enough about the ethics or the prize to be able to comment usefully - but hey! This is a very funny piece of writing, and it really made me smile on a grey morning. I wonder if Sainsburys thought you were a spy for Waitrose or Tescos, Nicola - I have this lovely image of you creeping round the aisles with your balaclava and camera on...

Penny Dolan said...

Yes, there's all sorts of reasons one can give for the award being awarded, BUT I JUST LOVE THIS POST! THANKS, NICOLA!

I'm also aware of the damage that the "only bestseller" picks do to the economy of other bookshops. Especially shops that sell books.

Mystery shopper revelead, eh? Enjoy your party and your cava!

Ms. Yingling said...

I most often frequent Aldis, where there are no books at all. My local Krogers has a few, and the Meijers superstore has the requisite best sellers. Thanks for the peek into your grocery-- whenever I travel, I pop into stores and spend an inordinate amount of time in the UK staring at the enormous biscuit section!And yes, I've taken pictures!

Ebony McKenna. said...

I love this post.
I also love percentages.
I sold two books yesterday, and three today.
That's a 33% increase in just one day.
Can I have my award now please?

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post. To be fair to Sainsbury's (although I would more than hesitate to call it a book retailer) the branches at Monks Cross Shopping Centre in York and Harrogate have a reasonable selection of fiction. These are not just the top 40, but I have bought Rose Tremain, Kate Atkinson and Phillippa Gregory there at £7 for 2.

As supermarket book sections go, I was pleasantly surprised. Alsdo, I have often found it difficult to get to the books I want to look at because of other customers in the way--but no staff, of course.And even if there were, they have no say in ordering or any knowledge of the book business, which will all be centrally controlled.

So, I would give five out of ten for trying but think they should stick to bacon and beans.

Nicola Morgan said...

Stroppy - that is *an* issue, but not the main issue for me. The main issue for me is actually deep discounting, as I regularly harp on about, and as I mention on my own blog today (

My article on ABBA today only claims to use my branch (a large refurbished one) as one example. I say it needed a rocket up it. I say it was doing absolutely nothing to promote books or reading. And I also believe that supermarkets' short-sighted foray into bookselling is inadvertently damaging the livelihoods of writers, the foundations of the whole book industry. I feel very strongly about this. I'd love to see them sell books properly, promote them properly, understand the situation properly.

For me this is all about what I've called "Fair Reading" - buying books at a decent price and if you can't / prefer not to, borrowing from public libraries.

Marshall Buckley said...

Brilliant. Very funny.

I think (though I don't know) that Ebony probably hit the nail on the head: if they've increased sals by 33% then that probably sounds brilliant and was possible the justification for the prize.
But percentages are meaningless without the context.

Also, I think you missed the opportunity to have you "b" as "bottles of wine". You sure as Hell would have found more choice there. Though we may never have seen you again...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Loved this post Nicola... I think it's still ok to photograph bacon! And pink Codornui? Cava is definitely the way to celebrate. Sorry I missed your Foyle's event. I was out of London for the day. Good luck for tonight.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Very true, Marshall,
Percentages can look marvellous, especially when you're coming from a low base.

Kate Wilson said...

I've added a graph to my blog post in reply to Nicola's post:

Sainsbury's would be in the top 10 of most publisher's list of customers.

They're big. A 33% increase doesn't represent a small sum.

adele said...

Kate's article and Nicola's together make a fine pair. Loved the photos on here, Nicola and have to say: our Book Zone in the branch I used to go to in Manchester was not bad at all. I'm afraid I've often bought stuff there...2 for £7.00. Kate Atkinson, Anita Shreve etc. I think libraries should stay open, schools should employ School Librarians and bookshops of all kinds should do their thing. It's very good that nowadays people who would NEVER THINK OF GOING TO A BOOKSHOP OF ANY KIND can find books just round the corner from the bacon.

Nicola Morgan said...

Kate - please excuse my haste but I'm in a rush. I don't dispute (and never have) those figures (though I haven't had time to look at them - and yes, you can do anything with stats anyway, but that's not a point I'd want to make) but they just aren't what I'm talking about! I'm talking about Fair Reading. Writers' livelihoods are being wrecked by deep discounting and supermarkets are at the forefront of this. In fact, the more they sell of deep-discounted books, the worse I am going to feel!

Anonymous said...

You are very funny - and obviously the wine section had greater pulling power. But I absolutely agree about dastardly supermarkets cutting author profits. Our Tesco Extra mammoth shop has huge numbers of shelves for books - so that's huge amounts of dosh not going to authors. Criminal.

Stroppy Author said...

Nicola, I think we need to read both of your posts to get your full picture, and I'd only read this one when I commented. This one doesn't mention discounting and it's damage to authors' livelihoods. I don't mean at all that that is not an issue - of course not. I meant that in terms of the award, wasn't it their sales stats that were the point at issue?

I do think it's a wonderfully amusing post, though I was put off by all the bacon. It's pig snuff porn, photos of bacon ;-)

Nicola Morgan said...

Stroppy - very fair point. But actually no, it wasn't their sales stats that I was writing about, as I didn't know them (or want to at the time) - it was the "reinvigorating of book zones". I wanted to say that mine needed a rocket up it!

Kate Wilson said...

Really great to see liveliness of this debate!

I have added author livelihood bits to my post. On a £5.99 pb, I am suggesting that an author would earn 45p from a sale of a book through an independent bookstore and 30p from a sale of the same book through a supermarket. Less money per copy for the author and a lot less for the publisher, but more copies sold is the very basic equation. For every 10 books you sell through an independent (and they order in ones and twos), you have to sell 15 through a supermarket (and they order in 1000s) to make the same money.

I love independent bookshops. I love bookseller chains.

If I ignored supermarkets, my business (small, new, independent) and the authors and illustrators whose books I am selling would suffer.

Can entirely see that your own example wasn't a particularly exciting book-buying venue.

And it is a funny post.

Lucy Coats said...

Have now read both Nicola's posts and Kate's and reckon there is much food (possibly bacon?) for thought in both. Here's my two-penn'orth: I've just done a troll through the books sections of Amazon, Tesco and Sainsbury for my own titles. It was instructive. Amazon is discounting at between 35-37%, Tesco at between 10-35% and Sainsburys are SELLING AT FULL PRICE, which tells me that my books are very unlikely to be physically on their shelves. They are even selling a hardback copy of a book I thought was long o/p, and I've ordered it just to see what happens. I wonder what price they are buying at. On the book club front, a whole set of Greek Beasts and Heroes (RRP £59.98) is selling for £12.99. Depressing, confusing or just to be accepted as the way things are? Probably all three.

Fantasy Football said...

Hope your book to do good business and you get your goal.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lucy - despite the fact that Sainsbury's have Write to be Published at deep discount, it won't be on their shelves either!

Kate - agree about liveliness of debate! It would be lovely to meet up and chat this through - are you up in edinburgh during August? Anyway, my maths, albeit not very good, does not produce figures like those, I'm afraid. After a standard bookshop 40% discount on a 5.99 pb, the 8% royalty normal for a pb would give the author about 29p. (I think?) And an 80% supermarket/book club discount would nett about 10p. Have I totally got that wrong? (Serious question! I am awful at maths!)

But anyway, I agree about volume sales, and of course firm sale rather than sale-or-dreaded-return is an advantage. But, I don't write the sort of books that supermarkets want anyway, and I am almost 100% certain that i've never earned a single penny from one! I have from bookclubs, and my agent and I repfer not to think about the royalty income from that, preferring to take the view that it boosts my sales figures on paper. The idea of selling 1000 copies of one of my books to a supermarket or to anyone retailer is lovely but doesn't happen.

Thing is, Kate, as a successful publisher you are obliged (and, of course, want) to do everything you can to get your books into supermarkets. I have no such need, desire or ability. I am free! (Actually, I've had lots of home learning books in supermarkets, best-sellers, but I get no royalty at all...)

Kate Wilson said...


Those certainly weren't the royalties or discounts I was working on!

My maths absolutely works for the Nosy Crow deal which we strike with authors individually but also with a range of agents, so does, I think, reflect industry standards. It's based on published price. It also reflects our discount model, which, like most publishers, we'd not talk publicly about but which I shouldn't think is seriously out of line with the rest of the industry.


Kate Wilson said...

Can I just say it makes me feel sad and worried that authors aren't always really informed about the realities or the arithmetic of the industry from which they make their living (or part of their living). That there should have been a debate about the scale of Sainsbury's as a bookseller (the conversation about it being easy to achieve a 33% increase if the base is low) suggests to me that people don't have enough information. I'm not saying that this is the fault of the authors. But I think it's interesting that publishers aren't often asked to explain these parts of the business to individual authors or groups of authors.

Nicola Morgan said...

Kate - ok, we must be working from different figures! (I do know what many of the discounts are that my books have experienced. And I even understand my royalty statements! Often, I'd rather not know.)

I agree re Sainsbury's sales not being by any stabndards low - that wasn't my part of the conversation.

As I say, my piece was about the dismal "book zone" in my Sainsbury's. But yes, I do also disparage and enormously dislike the price-slashing by supermarkets. Whether your figures or mine reflect the picture for most authors, the whole culture of under-pricing one's best products to the detriment of the creators is one I oppose and abhor.

Kate Wilson said...


So much to talk about!

Yes, will be in Edin, but quite briefly, at Festival time.

Am likely to be there for our Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson Mega Mash-up event on 15 August and then am there on 21 August too, for our Axel Scheffler and Penny Dale events and then an event I am doing myself about apps.

Nicola Morgan said...

Kate - I will be there on those dates. (I live here!) I'm doing a major scary event on 15th so might not be relaxed enough to speak, & a less scary one on 21st. But how about we email and fix something nearer the time? We did almost meet once briefly - you came (I think this is right?) to a party I hosted for the Soc of Authors a couple of years ago. Anyway, my email is
And I'll tell you about some interesting repercussions I've had to this post... All the best, and thanks for the discussion. Nicola

bookwitch said...

Great photos! I'm married to someone who regularly photographs crisps. Mainly in Tesco, but sometimes in Sainsbury's.
And nuts and snacks.

Bluejun said...

Perhaps bookshops should sell bacon sandwiches and cava. Just a thought.