To mark (almost) 20 years in business, and ahead of the Edinburgh Book Fringe, starting on August 8, here is a Q&A with Elaine Henry, owner of Word Power Books.
Q: How did Word Power come into existence?
A: (Smiles) It was a moment of madness.. well actually it was several years of moments of madness I suppose, because it’s such a big deal to set up your own business and something I’d never done before. I’d gone back to study, to Stirling University, to do the MPhil in publishing. It was in that year I got clear it was bookselling I wanted to do, to be on the other side of the trade really.
I did my thesis on radical bookselling, so that gave me a chance to visit a lot of radical bookstores down south. This was the early 90s, it was a thriving thing. There was still a Federation of Radical Booksellers, and I visited shops in places like Sheffield and London.
I had been a volunteer in Womanzone in Edinburgh, which was a feminist bookshop just down the road, where Brazilian Sensation [café on Buccleuch Street] is now. In the mid 80s there were three radical bookshops: First of May, on Candlemaker Row; Womanzone and lesbian and gay bookshop Lavander Menace on Forth Street. So it gives you an idea of that time, and books by radical publishers weren’t really taken up by the mainstream shops. You could argue maybe that all three couldn’t survive when the big chains started stocking the likes of Virago and The Women’s Press. They had prime locations and money; radical bookshops were down backstreets and didn’t have money.
So when they closed, it wasn’t because there wasn’t a demand or a need for these bookshops. There was still a market for them but it took a few years to build up to opening my own shop. I kept putting it off and thinking, ‘that’s too big’. Then I started taking it seriously and tried to turn the fear on its head. I thought, ‘well, what’s the worst thing that could happen? As long as I don’t run up millions of pounds of debt, and end up without a roof over my head..’
So I opened Word Power in 1994 in these premises. I took a one year lease and didn’t know if it was going to work. And here we are nearly 20 years on, which is just incredible to me and probably to anyone. So it’s very exciting.
Q: How have things changed over the years?
A: We are now a larger bookshop, we have knocked through to what was the joiners next door – that was a few years ago and enabled us to have more events in store. Nowadays we also publish books and have a website.
Q: And what about in terms of trade?
A: Business has been steady I would say but you’re always up against it. I was not aware of Amazon [launched in July 1994] when I started. In my mind they were not around then. From memory chain bookshops such as Waterstones were at a peak. They had a lot of strong author events, a good stock selection; they were on the up and they started stocking LGBT and gender issues books.
So it’s always been tough but we have our niche; we offer good customer service and have loyal customers and more than ever that’s important to survive.
Q: As mentioned previously, Word Power started in the same year Amazon was founded and, as someone on the outside, small indies surviving in its shadow seems quite remarkable! What’s your view?
A: I’ve always – and I don’t mean this in an arrogant way – carried on doing my own thing. There’s lots of things you can’t compete with them on but their knowledge of, say, more radical titles, small press titles, that’s their weakness really. And I don’t know if they still do, because I’m not an active visitor to their site, but they certainly used to put on a surcharge for what they called “hard to find” books, which would include pretty much anything from the small presses.
They are more interested in making money. Books are simply a commodity they sell. I try to offer something different. Customers interested in the stock we have do return, and those who have never been before are genuinely quite bowled over. I mean I’m not exaggerating by saying that; almost every day someone comments on the selection of books so we stand out in that way.
Q: Do you think you – and other indie bookshops – offer something special at a wider level too?
A: Yes, I don’t see us operating in isolation, we are very much part of the community. We have a well-used noticeboard, we are part of the Love Your Indie scheme, which aims to keep books on the high street, and we do a lot of book stalls at events, and offer a whole range of creative writing events and author events. We run the Independent Radical Book Fair every October. And this month the Edinburgh Book Fringe takes place.
Q: Tell us more about that.
A: We started the Book Fringe a few years ago, since we got the extra space. They are all free events because we really believe strongly that literary events should be accessible to all. Not everybody can afford £8 a ticket to see a writer. And again it links into trying to support the small presses, writers outwith the mainstream or local writers. I’m aware that a lot of local writers don’t get a look-in at the Book Festival [the much larger Edinburgh International Book Festival which takes place in Charlotte Square Gardens] so this an opportunity to offer them the chance to participate during August.
There’s an intimacy you get here, and we always give a lot of time for questions and discussion. That’s equally as important as the writer speaking. It’s meant to be an inclusive as possible in that respect and they get asked more real questions rather than formulaic questions: you know, “Are you working on a new book?” and questions like that can get a bit dull. And in bigger audiences people can feel a bit intimidated about asking questions. Here writers can be a bit more revealing because of the intimacy and rapport that’s been built up. So all in all it works better for writers as well as the audience.
Q: Is the Book Fringe well attended?
A: Yes, events are generally well supported. Apparently the average audience at a Fringe show is four so you never know who you’re going to get through the door, it is a bit pot luck. But when Edwyn Collins came to do a reading he did an impromptu set of three or four songs and everyone had to cram up. There must have been about 100 people, who were treated to a private gig. We’ve had comedians like Stewart Lee and Mark Thomas. There’s much more unpredictability because they suddenly have great ideas of what they’re going to do. [Comedian] David O’Doherty decided just beforehand he wanted to project things on to the ceiling.
So it’s anything goes and much more in the original spirit of the Fringe as well: everything’s free, creativity is encouraged, heckling is fine..! We are free of corporate sponsorship so we can do what we want and let writers do what they want.
Q: Can you give us a couple of highlights from this year’s programme?
A: I am excited by all of the events at the Book Fringe! [Laughs]. Well, we have Selina Todd, author of The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910—2010, a fascinating book. The graphic novelist Bryan Talbot, who wrote Dotter of her Father’s Eyes with daughter Mary Talbot [about James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, it won the Costa biography prize] – they will be here with Kate Charlesworth, to discuss the trio’s graphic novel, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette.
Q: What subjects or books are popular just now?
A: Books related to the independence referendum are popular. We have just published, with National Collective, Inspired by Independence: Artists and Writers Imagine a Better Scotland.
A very popular book just now is Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. It’s surprising, you wouldn’t think a £30 hardback book on economics would sell so well, but it has.
Q: And in terms of reaching customers, how have you adapted over the years?
A: We took the plunge to have all books available in the UK on our website, so these days we sell all over the world. We weren’t at the cutting edge of social media but we do use Twitter and Facebook now. It seems to be the way things are going and it’s about targeting different groups. We are in extremely close proximity to the university, for example, but we don’t get as many student customers as we’d like.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: There’s not necessarily a tremendous awareness among students about thinking about where you shop. It’s not unusual for them to come in and be checking the Amazon prices on their phones, or to actually say to you, “oh I’ll get that on Amazon, it’s cheaper”. There’s that lack of connection between the fact that, if everybody kept shopping on Amazon, there would be no bookshops left. It’s important people realise we are not just a showroom for online shopping here, we are a bookshop.
If you are doing a course and the book is there, right in front of you, why not make that leap and think, ‘I’m supporting a local shop here, that’s a good thing to do. It may be £1 more but by the time I pay for postage and packing, and have to wait to be in to get book delivered, buying online is not necessarily so convenient.
Q: So do you find it’s the younger generation who will automatically choose Amazon?
A: It’s among students but not exclusively so. There was a massive difference when it was reported that Amazon were not paying taxes. A lot of people came in and said they weren’t going to use them again. It was good at the time but it’s quite easy for people to slip back into the ‘one click’ mentality. So it’s a big challenge.
But if you make the connection about supporting local shops, to buy your fruit and veg at the local greengrocers and not buy everything in Tesco – then supporting your local bookshop is a natural extension of that. It’s about joining the dots. Of course there’s enough people who are, and we are surviving, but it’s a precarious situation as always.
Q: Has the number of customers coming into the shop decreased since you launched your website?
I wouldn’t say so, a lot of customers still come in, and we encourage that. If it’s a textbook on a reading list and you’ve just got to buy it, that’s one thing, but if you’re looking for a novel then I think it’s so much nicer to be able to touch the books, read the back, see what it’s about. And to be able to choose. The range we stock is carefully selected. It’s customer recommendations, it’s small publishers, it’s books we’ve read, it’s authors we know who are worth stocking. It is hand-picked, effectively, in that way.
- The 2014 Edinburgh Book Fringe takes place from August 8th to 23rd. See http://www.word-power.co.uk for more information.
- And in November it is, officially, Happy 20th Birthday to Word Power 🙂 Keep an eye on the website or notices in the shop for details of planned celebrations