Melanie Butler talks to BEBC’s John Walsh about four decades in the book business
Forty years ago you had a good job as a book editor – you famously edited the smash hit Kernel Lessons Intermediate, the best-selling ELT title of its time – so what possessed you to throw away a solid career and open a bookshop?
I was working in the leading ELT publishing house as a desk editor and sales executive in the UK and I thought people were waiting too long to get books – it was taking six weeks to get books delivered from London to anywhere else. There weren’t any specialist bookshops for language teaching, so I decided to start one. I asked the publisher and the author Louis Alexander, the bestselling ELT author ever, if they wanted to support me. The publisher said no, but Alexander and his friend Ronald Ridout supported me, lent me a small sum of money, and that’s how I started BEBC. The main plan was to cut delivery times so I just drove to London every week – most of the publishers were near London – and picked up the books. I got the delivery time down from six weeks to a maximum of six days.
This was in the middle of the 1974 recession, and we had the three-day week and power cuts three days a week. Everyone said I was rather silly to start a business. I just said, if things are so bad now, they can only get better – and they did.
Looking back, who were the three people who most influenced your success and why?
Apart from Louis Alexander, there was the late great Tim Rix, my first line manager, who went on to become managing director at Longman – he taught me to always hire the best. Then Paula Kahn, for all her sins and faults! She taught me a lot about management, what to do and what not to do. I still remember her in her punk days, all in black and with purple hair – and still they promoted her because she was a great publisher. Finally the author Robert O’Neill. He was such an imaginative person.
He had such a fresh approach to his writing, to his teaching and to dealing with people. He was open – you knew exactly where you were. When we published Kernel Lessons Intermediate he signed a copy for me and wrote, ‘To the Editor of this glorious battle.’
What are the biggest changes you have seen in the ELT book trade since you began?
The drop in the number of publishers. When we first produced our Critical Guide there were 72 UK ELT publishing imprints, and now there are about a dozen. The other major change has been the European open market. Forty years ago the same coursebook would retail for 130 per cent more in Spain than in the UK. All that began to change with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Eager to get a foothold in the emerging markets, the publishers began to discount heavily. A video that sold at £150 in the UK cost £15 in Poland. People got into their cars and drove across borders to buy books. Now buying around, as we call it in the trade, is perfectly legal – it’s a single market, there is free movement of goods. In Europe you can no longer have exclusive deals – market pricing is dead.
And what about the digital revolution?
It will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet – not in my markets, which are mostly in Europe. In parts of the world like Korea, where the bandwidth speeds are very fast, it is almost totally digital. But in much of Europe the digital infrastructure is just not there. In Italy the bandwidths are barely better than dial-up. A teacher friend told me they had seen a class where half the students had laptops, and the rest had books. The teacher spent half the class trying to fix the technical problems with the laptops – the amount of language learning going on was zilch. That’s the thing with books: they don’t crash. Also you have to factor in the teacher training. Most teachers aren’t digital natives, and in the private language schools, where most teachers are casual and wander from one school to another, there is a real problem with all the different packages. That’s why so many interactive whiteboards are unused
or underused. It’s a very conservative market – for any course, nine books with a CD of materials will be sold for every one book where the extra materials are online. To be honest I don’t think that today’s big ELT publishers will be the dominant digital content providers of tomorrow. They haven’t got a great track record on new media – they keep trying to get into markets they don’t understand and just charge too much. One minute they charge £190 for whiteboard software, the next they give it away with the book.
The problem the publishers have is they are moving in the right direction but they are ahead of the market. You have to take your market with you, and at the moment my market doesn’t want digital. There is phenomenal growth in the market. At BEBC we have seen record sales – but in books.
Are you still the largest supplier of ELT books in the UK?
Among the independents, yes. BEBC’s turnover is more than four times that of its nearest specialist competitor. But compared to Amazon I just don’t know. They are the big beasts in the room, and it’s a beast the publishers helped to create – giving them huge discounts. They operate in the UK but pay their taxes in Luxembourg at a much lower rate than the UK, and they pay very low wages, so the high-street bookshop can’t compete. But specialist booksellers like us, we can. We have to match everything Amazon does, and beat it. We have more books in stock – we have 95 per cent of the top 250 titles in our warehouse all the time. They discount on specific titles; we discount on the size of the order for every title. The biggest advantage we have, though, is there is a person on the end of a phone. Our clients are placing big orders. They want advice, they want reassurance, they want comfort.
We are competing aggressively with Amazon, and that is what motivates me, what keeps me getting up in the morning. BEBC is forty years old this year and I am 68, but we’re still fit, we’re still fighting and we’re still having fun. I have no intention of retiring – I’m having too much fun.
BUY THE BOOK John Walsh says that the digital revolution in publishing is happening in some places, but not yet in Europe Courtesy
“John Walsh of BEBC was interviewed in the April issue of the EL Gazette by the editor, Melanie Butler”