Booksellers on the breadline
Shopfloor booksellers are the backbone of the book trade, but, as Danuta Kean found out, low pay means many are forced to live below the breadline.
In the dreary back office of a bookselling chain’s London branch, Adam, a senior bookseller, is despondent. Leaning back in his chair, he scans his surroundings. The environment reflects his mood: “I didn’t think I would be here at 25, but I am, and it is starting to get to me. It has reached the point now where I have to ask myself, do I want a career in bookselling?”
It is not an easy question to answer. Though he did not envisage staying long in bookselling when he started out, Adam soon began to get deep satisfaction from a job in which he can use his law degree to offer a service way beyond simply signposting a section or a title. “The relationships with customers are what have kept me here for the past few years,” he adds.
But Adam’s job satisfaction has been eroded by the effort it takes to survive in London on a salary of £14,000 a year. Of all his flatmates, he is the only one who struggles to pay the rent of £400 a month. He economises by taking a bus to work—one and a half hours—instead of a 40-minute Tube ride, thus saving £100 a month; his social life is restricted to cheap nights out at the start of the month and long nights in before pay day.
If Adam wants to splash out, he uses plastic, and like many other young booksellers tries not to think of his mounting credit card debt. Holidays are spent at home; he cannot afford to go away. No wonder Adam is eyeing up his options. “If I were a corporate librarian in a City law firm I could earn up to £80,000.”
Across London, John, an assistant manager at Waterstone’s, has just finished briefing staff about the annual pay review, which this year was one of the best in bookselling. The review resulted in an across-the-board increase of 5% for booksellers, goods-in and administrative staff with one year’s service; it rocketed Waterstone’s out of the bottom quartile for pay and into the top. The extra 5% took a stage two bookseller in the chain to £5.18 an hour; £10,101 a year for a 37.5 hour week, excluding regional weighting.
But despite the generosity of the deal, John’s staff were not happy, because of the increase in National Insurance. “It is always difficult to sell a pay review to your staff when they are on a low wage, especially when the increase is modest,” John says. “But when most of that little is taken away from them by something that is not even in their control, it is heartbreaking.”
John’s sympathy for his staff is made keener by his own struggle to maintain a decent standard of living on a basic annual wage of less than £16,000. Now in his 30s, he has no choice but to live in cheap, shared accommodation and has no hope of either renting or buying a place on his own. “In many ways I am sick to death of it. It is what I have been doing for 10 years. I know the business from back to front, and I love it. But the only things I own are hundreds of books. It is very frustrating for a number of reasons, not least that all my friends are earning at least twice as much as me.”
For some, the way around the pay gap is to take a second job, and many of the booksellers spoken to in researching this article reported that they or colleagues supplement their incomes with part-time work, usually in local bars.Down on the Isle of Wight, Ottakar’s branch manager Paul Armfield, who is also pursuing a musical career, loves his job and has vowed to stay with the branch even if his forthcoming album takes off. Though now on a managerial salary, he admits that, when he was working his way up, his earnings from gigs kept the wolf from the door. “I’m now a manager, but as a general bookseller I couldn’t have afforded to work in the book trade if I didn’t have other money coming in.”
No one could deny that general booksellers are badly paid. What comes as a shock is that their basic pay, which ranges from £4.35 to £6.20 an hour for shop-floor workers, compares poorly with that of unskilled and low status workers, traditionally the lowest paid in the workforce (see box opposite “The usual suspects”).
According to the Low Pay Unit, a grade one cleaner based in a London local authority earns £11,931 a year. According to government figures, from the Office for National Statistics’ New Earnings Survey (NES), the average hourly rate in 2001/02 for a cleaner or domestic in the UK was £5.36. A clerical assistant at Bass Brewers can expect to earn between £11,742 and £14,440 a year, while a checkout assistant at a London branch of Asda earns £5.13 an hour.
Even at managerial level bookselling pay can be low. The travel bookseller Stanford’s, for example, recently advertised for a store manager at its central London flagship offering £22,000 a year.
Booksellers, including assistant managers and senior booksellers, are among the worst paid workers in London, where 32% of non-manual workers earn less than £17,500 a year; average earnings in the capital are £34,762 (NES). Anti-poverty campaigners calculate that to live in London an employee needs to earn at least £6.30 an hour (source: University of York Family Budgeting Unit/Telco, The East London Communities Organisation).
Median national gross earnings for full-time adult employees in April 2002 were £383.40 a week (all adult employees) or £22,469 p.a. (adult employees of 12 months’ standing, non-manual), according to the NES. The Council of Europe Decency Threshold, which is used to calculate “fair remuneration”, is 68% of median earnings. By this calculation, many booksellers are some way off receiving a “fair” wage.
Adam feels he is “on the breadline”. Certainly, the small amount of disposable income some booksellers find themselves left with at the end of each month makes them feel as if they are closer to the poverty line than they are to a fair wage. Based on government figures for net household income, the poverty line is £187 a week for a childless couple and £114 a week for a single person (source: Institute of Fiscal Studies).
David Hicks, chief executive of the Book Trade Benevolent Society, says the problem of low pay is not confined to booksellers in London and the south east. In the past year the society has received four applications from booksellers for hardship grants. “Our policy is that normally we don’t help people who are in work, because if they cannot afford to live on the wage they receive that is a problem their employer needs to address,” he explains.
After consideration, it was decided to look more closely at two of the applications. The BTBS committee looked at the booksellers’ income and subtracted elements of expenditure the committee deemed essential, such as rent, food and travel. “We believe that there is a fundamental level of income people need for a decent standard of life. We found that the two booksellers were earning 3% below our guideline income,” Hicks says, clearly shocked.
What is also worrying about these cases is that both booksellers worked for bookselling chains and were based outside the hotspots of the south east and London. As Hicks observes: “If they were eligible for help from us, then every other person on their level in their chain should be.”
Does low pay on the shop floor matter? Most booksellers report no shortage of applicants for vacancies, even in areas of relatively high employment. People want to work with books.
But recruitment is only one aspect of efficient human resourcing. The real skill is retention, and bookselling remains a sector with a high turnover of junior staff—the overall trade average is 35%. The average cost of replacing a member of staff (of advertising, processing and interviewing candidates, the initial loss of expertise, and training) is estimated by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development at £3,933, which means that a company with 1,000 employees haemorrhages £1,376,550 a year in recruitment.
No wonder Waterstone’s, which had a higher than average staff turnover, is implementing a raft of policies to bring staff turnover down to affordable levels. Its high street rivals, Borders and Blackwell’s, are equally concerned about staff retention, and in the past year have introduced HR policies aimed at reducing turnover and improving remuneration and morale.
Booksellers’ salaries compare reasonably with those in other retail sectors (see box left, “How booksellers pay”). According to the NES, in 2001 a supermarket checkout operator in Sainsbury’s could expect to start on £4.40 an hour, rising to £5.17 an hour. A similar position in a branch of the Co-op would earn £4.40 an hour. In fashion retailer Next, a sales assistant could expect to earn between £4.08 and £5.96 an hour depending on location and grade. In 2001 Marks & Spencer paid its sales assistants between £4.59 and £9.03 an hour, again depending on location and grade. M&S staff also enjoyed 23 days’ holiday a year, rising to 25 after five years, higher than the sector norm of 20 days.
But, as most retail commentators acknowledge, a comparison between booksellers and general retail sales assistants is not one of like with like. Booksellers are an anomaly in retail. “Bookshops are one of the few places in retail where you can use your specialist knowledge,” acknowledges David Southwell, head of communications at the British Retail Consortium. “Customers in bookshops expect a high level of knowledge from staff, which you wouldn’t tend to find elsewhere in retail.”
It is a point not lost on book trade employers. Beverley Newman, Borders UK human resources director, worked for food retailer Iceland before joining the US-owned book chain. “I was staggered when I came here by the amount of influence some booksellers and certain managers have on the business,” she confesses. “It is so different from major retail. It is not a shop assistant role.”
“Our booksellers are a huge part of our brand,” says Waterstone’s HR director Sarah Dormer, echoing the view of counterparts in other chains. “Their knowledge and passion are invaluable to our customers.”
A senior bookseller sums up the skills he uses, and why he loves the job: “All booksellers at my level and above are accountants, balancing the books on a daily basis. We are personnel managers, working out the training and employment needs of staff. We are also retailers, stock managers, events organisers and PR people.” As one former bookseller observes: “All that for 10 grand a year.”Other booksellers are less philosophical. “If I was a checkout chicken in Sainsbury’s, it wouldn’t matter so much that we were so low paid, but in bookselling we are expected to be good at our job and know everything about everything in the shop,” says one bookseller angrily. “The pay is so bad it is no wonder that everyone wants to go.”
Willie Anderson, deputy chairman of John Smith, is understanding: “Booksellers expect an awful lot from their shop-floor staff. As a trade we are always looking for graduates, but we don’t pay them a salary that they could get elsewhere.”
But is bookselling so different? Some would argue that the growth of central buying in the chains has diminished the traditional role of shop-floor booksellers and, along with it, their claim to deserve better pay than shop-floor workers in other sectors. Bookshop staff are traditionally drawn from an educated pool—graduates and good A-level students, whose salary expectations can be high. But do their qualifications reflect the demands of the job in the 21st century? Not everyone thinks so.
“We have over-relied on people’s love of the product, rather than mapping a future career in bookselling. That is the key thing that has changed in the last 10 years,” says Kelvin Harris, head of human resources at Ottakar’s and consultant to the British Retail Consortium. Harris believes that the emphasis on vocational booksellers with a passion for books is outdated, and that a career structure aimed at more broadly-skilled retailers, who are able to listen to customers’ needs and encourage return visits, is more appropriate for modern book chains.
In a comment that may raise hackles among those who regard booksellers’ product knowledge as unique in retailing and the foundation of the success of the whole trade, Harris says: “What does a customer ask in a book store? Sixty percent of their problems are, ‘Do you have or where is such and such?’ rather than, ‘What’s on page 162 of this book?’ There is a very high level of knowledge required from our workforce, but we are in danger of overplaying that.”
Whatever differences there may be on the subject of the skills required for bookselling, there is little disagreement among employers on the matter of remuneration for the job. “Rates of pay for most shop-floor staff are quite appalling,” admits a senior source in one chain.
And it appears to be an intractable problem. In a business that bleeds money in discounts to consumers, margins remain low and the opportunities to boost salaries are limited. “Bookselling is not a well paid job,” admits Elspeth Griffiths, people development director at Blackwell’s. She adds: “Academic bookselling is very difficult, because it is a much lower margin business even than general bookselling. Rewards have always been an issue.”
“We tend to keep an eye on M&S, Boots and supermarkets, such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s which pay more, but food retailers can afford to,” says Paul Lee of the Retail Book, Stationery and Allied Trade Employees Association. The union benchmarks its claims against other retail sectors when negotiating pay with employers where it has a collective agreement, notably W H Smith. It has recently signed an agreement with Waterstone’s for collective bargaining rights on behalf of assistant managers and managers.
Bookselling employers rely heavily on sales-related bonuses to boost shop-floor pay. These range from a week’s extra pay at Christmas for all staff to performance-related bonuses for branches or individuals and incentives for company-wide initiatives. The incentives are favoured by Ottakar’s. The chain runs inhouse competitions for point-of-sale design (which can net the winner £400) and cash incentives for staff involved in one of the many “micro-site” committees that advise on, for example, buying and marketing.
The level of bonuses varies widely from company to company. Most are paid as a percentage of salary each quarter. Ottakar’s pays up to 15% for sales that beat budget. Blackwell’s has refined its previously confusing system to a simple cash payment of £12.50 for every 1% above target with a cap of 10% a quarter.
“We would have liked it to be far higher, but affordability was an issue,” Elspeth Griffiths admits, a sentiment shared by her counterparts elsewhere in the trade.
WHS pays up to 30% extra a year based on store profit, area profit and mystery shopper results. Borders UK operates a share option scheme open to all staff after two years, as well as performance-related bonuses paid at branch level. Waterstone’s bonuses have been revamped this year; staff are paid on a sliding scale from £40 a quarter for achieving budget to £110 for a 10% increase, with a £1,610 maximum available to high street and campus booksellers.
To “better reflect” the importance of December for Waterstone’s high street branches, and October and November for campus stores, booksellers could achieve triple the usual bonus in those months, although the £1,610 cap remains.These bonuses sound generous, but there is a degree of scepticism on the shop floor about their value. “Bonuses? You’re having a laugh!” is the incredulous reply of former bookseller Eileen, when asked about how bonuses boosted her salary. “Work it out over the year and it means no more than an extra three pints a month.” Basic pay is the crux of the matter for most booksellers; bonuses do not plug the gap between their earnings and their living costs.
Traditionally the low-pay bind suffered by booksellers was short-lived. The expansion of the chains ensured that competent booksellers could quickly rise up the pay and promotion ladder. Also, bookshops provided a natural apprenticeship for publishing. But these career progression options are shrinking fast. Centralised buying has narrowed the product-related skills that made shop-floor booksellers attractive to publishers. In addition, more retailers from outside the trade are taking up management positions in the bookselling chains, which means less opportunity for inhouse advancement. “Most of the recent manager vacancies here have been filled by people outside the chain,” says Adam, who is pessimistic about promotion.
Hazel Broadfoot, co-owner of The Bookshop, Dulwich Village, is adamant that the only answer to the problem is to pay staff above market rates. “Because we are a small shop we have not always had a lot of people working here, but when we have had to recruit, we have taken the view that we pay above the going rate,” says the Waterstone’s manager turned independent bookseller. “It is our experience that if you pay more you get better qualified and experienced staff. In a shop this size that reflects very quickly in sales.”
Exactly how is clear. Broadfoot uses a trade rule of thumb to measure efficiency: a bookshop should turn over £100,000 per member of staff a year if it is to do well. “We are well above that,” she claims.
But this approach to the pay dilemma does not appear to be under consideration by other booksellers. “If your staff costs are too high it will have a very definite impact on your bottom line,” is the response of one Irish retailer who has faced difficulties persuading good staff to relocate to other branches, a common problem within chains. “What would enable us to pay booksellers more? I am not sure how you go about it, but you have to increase productivity and that has to be through better stock management.”
Other alternatives to paying more include moving away from the traditional demographic for bookshop recruits. This would mean engaging more part-time workers whose bookshop pay would not be a prime source of income. The chains are already actively targeting “grey” workers, especially retired teachers, and young mothers returning to the workforce.
There are benefits to such increased diversity in the retail workforce: study after study has confirmed the positive influence that older workers have on their younger colleagues, such as improved absence rates and time keeping. At B&Q and Asda, older workers have proved to have a positive impact on customer relations, because they are seen as more knowledgeable and trustworthy.
But these workers are unlikely to take up full-time positions or have ambitions to ascend the career ladder. As every successful company knows, a mixture of home-grown and outside recruits are necessary to the vitality of a business. Management whose c.v.s include hard graft at the coal face have a better understanding of the customer-facing needs and failings of the company. They understand the culture and ethos and what differentiates it from its competitors.
If booksellers are to attract such long-term employees they need to offer remuneration that will appeal to people whose passion for a career in bookselling is not then scuppered by poor pay.
(The names of most booksellers quoted have been changed to protect their identities.)