Bookbrunch's Julie Vuong meets Iain Rushworth to discuss the development of the company’s standalone bookstores, the Desmond Elliott Prize and being duty-bound to debut authors.
Iain Rushworth has had a busy year. As specialist book buyer at WH Smith, he has been instrumental in implementing a new strategy for its books department. Just this week the company announced that 15 more Travel Book Stores were to open this year, bolstering a strong and profitable arm for the company. They join eight existing travel shops as well as the Bookshop at Euston, which Rushworth describes as its "model for the future". It’s proof, if needed, that WH Smith aims to be a bigger player for serious readers - those more interested in the top 10 bestsellers than in stamps and Smarties.
I meet Rushworth as the dust settles on the Euston launch, and he describes how WH Smith formed its new approach. "We split our customers into three brackets: light, medium and heavy buyers," he confirms. "For our travel stores we offer a specially curated selection to browse, handwritten recommendations from sales staff and key buyers at head office, combined with shop floor advisors armed with in-depth knowledge. Euston is the basis on how we move forward."
It’s quite a responsibility Rushworth is tasked with; WH Smith is after all one of our top retail stalwarts. According to company figures, 90% of the UK population can reach a WH Smith store within 20 minutes from their door, and 73% make at least one visit a year. The chain currently breaks down to 612 high street shops and 768 travel shops.
But Rushworth is undaunted. He credits his background from the shop floor as bookseller at WH Smith to his subsequent move to the buying department for his ability to spot the books that translate to healthy sales. His role takes in two distinct strands: commercial fiction on the high street and travel stores, alongside more specialist sales including luxury collectors’ items that can fetch up to £5,000 in its Harrods and Selfridges concessions.
Investments and opportunities
If 2016 was busy, 2017 is set to trump it as WH Smith brings out the bunting for its 225-year anniversary. With all milestones comes scrutiny, and WH Smith is not without its critics; those who decry disappointing sales figures and the presentation of some of its stores. However, over the past three years the chain has invested £150m in refurbishing and improving high street shops. On top of that, the new standalone bookstores are thriving and serve to kick-start a dramatic change in fortune. "Euston is different to anything else we offer," Rushworth emphasises. "It’s performed well and taken our strategy in a new, exciting direction." When quizzed on future plans and new locations, Rushworth remains tight-lipped but emphasises the successful benchmark Euston sets. What next? Rushworth is ready to roll out the new strategy further and keen to pursue some of WH Smith’s core goals - one of which is to bring new authors to the fore.
Amplifying new voices
According to Rushworth, nurturing new voices in publishing is integral to WH Smith’s identity. The company is proud of its Fresh Talent showcase, which highlights 12 emerging authors twice a year. "It’s a great platform, because in general not enough space is given over to debut authors on the shop floor," he says. "It’s an important light to shine on them."
A desire to support up-and-coming authors has earned Rushworth the role of judge for the Desmond Elliott Prize for debut novelists. "I was approached to act as one of three judges because of my role at WH Smith and off the back of our Euston launch, which garnered a huge amount of press," he says. He nods to the prize’s track record in recognising exceptional authors as a key factor in persuading him to jointhe panel, which also includes Sam Leith (author and literary editor of the Spectator), and Kamila Shamsie, whose most recent novel A God in Every Stone was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize in 2015.
"The prize has a rich history of picking great books - think of SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep [longlisted in 2012] and Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing [winner in 2014]" He talks enthusiastically about this year’s shortlist but gives nothing away, only remarking that he and his co-judges are in the final throes of decision-making.
From a longlist of 12, they have whittled it down to three: Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, Kit de Waal’s My Name Is Leon and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You. The winner, announced next Wednesday evening, will receive £10,000 as well as prominent promotional space at WH Smith bookstores. "I was struck by the diverse genres and how accomplished they all were," Rushworth says. "It’s a really strong shortlist. Because of my job, I suppose I judge with two hats on. On one hand as a general reader looking to be engaged and moved. Whilst on the other, as a retailer, judging the whole package: how it’s been published and marketed. Essentially, its commercial aptitude."
New authors: gain not gamble
Rushworth is keen to dismiss the idea that when it comes to buying, new authors are considered risky business. In fact, he insists that on occasions it can be quite the opposite. "Certainly, in my mind, there are debut authors that receive a level of exposure that perhaps even some 'branded authors' don’t get. Think about last year’s big hitters: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Girls by Emma Cline or Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. Once the publishing industry gets behind a book - this includes retailers, publishers and critics - the exposure can be great."
However, he concedes, it is probably the exception rather than the rule, and calls for all individuals in publishing to fly the flag for new talent. "It’s tough out there because so much is being published," he says. "Are debut authors getting enough support? No. I think we could do more, myself included. At some point Hilary Mantel must have been a debut author, right? So, I think it’s an obligation we have to seek out and support new talent."
When quizzed on the publishers that excel in this area, he namechecks Faber, Vintage and Picador. "But I honestly can’t think of any publisher that hasn’t showcased emerging writers, which is a great thing. What perhaps needs a rethink is the way debuts are presented. It is not uncommon to be sold a first-time author as 'the next JK Rowling' or a new book as 'the next Girl on the Train'. I would like to see new works packaged differently, and not compared to something that already exists."
The power of recommendations
Alongside debuts, WH Smith is building on the success of existing initiatives. "We still see great results from the Richard and Judy Book Club [run in association with WHS] - they always pick the right books for our audience," he says. "Meanwhile, YouTuber Zoella’s Book Club has returned this year, proving a huge draw for younger readers. Again, it’s the power of trusted recommendations that is at the heart of what we do. Our challenge is we need to cater to everyone: young, old, collector, traveller. This means picking the biggest commercial reads for the beach, children’s books for the summer holidays, and key business titles for our airport concessions."
Asked about what should be on the radar for the rest of the year, Rushworth says: "Right now, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight is still a big hit, as is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. It’s a real mixed bag!" And he singles out a book that he predicts will be a bestseller for the company. "There’s a great deal of buzz about Mad by Chloe Esposito," he reveals, "it’s 'grip-lit' but quite unlike anything I’ve ever read."