Books & Print

‘whether it actually was or not’ : The truth about book shop displays 

Image Credit: Elizabeth Walsh

by Elizabeth Walsh 

Life is full of choices. Arguably, one of the most enjoyable is which book to buy next. Once inside a bookshop, it is hard to resist the allure of that week’s ‘bestsellers.’ The bold covers and big names entice us, but just how authentically impartial are the bookshop displays that influence our book buying habits? 

It is no secret that publishers are money making enterprises. As John B. Thompson notes, in Merchants of Culture, ‘they must invest in marketing and promoting [a] book’ to ensure its success. However, sometimes they go a step further and pay retailers substantial amounts to ensure a title is placed on their bestseller list to reach the largest potential readership. 

A former WHSmith employee recently revealed on Twitter that during his time with  them, staff were instructed to display Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club as the bestseller, ‘whether it actually was or not’ due to a  deal with Penguin. This example alone shows that in a hierarchy of value, celebrities come out on top, above what readers would enjoy reading. 

My reading is often inspired by the books of ‘the moment’ and so I felt surprised to learn that the term ‘bestseller’ isn’t always accurate. Perhaps naively, I always believed the ‘charts’ to objectively represent books that my fellow readers have enjoyed and which I might too. I saw bestseller displays as a guide which I previously did not question.

James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, champions a more employee-led approach. He admitted that in 2010, the company took £27 million from deals with publishers but since his appointment this has stopped. He noted that ‘You sell a lot more books when you let booksellers get on with their job’. 

With this in mind, I was interested to know more about the relationship between independent book shops and publishers and reached out to The Little Apple Bookshop in York. An employee put their book down to tell me that ‘Nothing is sponsored whatsoever. If a book is in the window display it is because we think it will sell well.’ While they don’t accept paid deals with publishers, they have other ways of highlighting anticipated bestsellers.

Author signed copies are a key tool for selling, with signed titles including Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty and Bernardine Evaristo’s Manifesto. Interestingly, the employee noted how publishers don’t charge independent bookshops extra for signed copies, which suggests the important role they play in determining the reading habits of the community and the overall impact of a title. 

The connections between publishing and retail aren’t as straightforward as we might think. While we will have varying views about publishers buying their way onto bestseller charts, they, alongside booksellers, need to survive financially. The industry is hugely competitive and companies have varying approaches when it comes to bestseller displays. One thing I have learnt is that independent bookshops are probably the best place to go if I want to buy books based on genuine, human recommendations.