Questions for: Kate Gunning

News - Interviews Tuesday, 9th November 2021

The consultant and former independent bookshops manager at PRH contributes to our Q&A series


Describe your job
As a consultant, I work with a variety of clients, helping them to identify and obtain exactly what they require in order to move their businesses forward.

What was your first job in the book industry? 
Aged 16, I got a Saturday job working as an assistant at our local library. I remember that my starting salary was £8 for a day's work.

Who has been the most influential person in your career?
That would have to be Tim Waterstone. I feel so lucky that I joined Waterstones when I did (as a Christmas temp in 1987) and that Tim had such faith in me. I stayed with the company for 13 years, working in management posts in Bristol, Paris and London, having the time of my life and forging some of my closest and most enduring friendships. And what an experience to be part of an organisation that was changing the face of the industry.

How has the industry changed since your first job?
Let me put it this way. When I joined Waterstones, the NBA was in place and there was no discounting; Amazon and digital publishing didn't exist; WH Smith was the main player on the high street; supermarkets hadn't entered the fray; Waterstones was becoming the disruptor. 

What's the biggest challenge in your job?
Juggling my commitments to my various clients and managing my time accordingly. A nice challenge to have.

What's the best piece of book-related advice you've ever been given?
"Stick with what you love." Advice given to me by a friend 20 years ago, when I was contemplating leaving the book industry.

What are the most interesting things you're seeing at the moment in the industry?
Innovation on the part of indie booksellers, initially but not exclusively as a response to the pandemic and the associated restrictions. I see a new generation of bookshops opening and, as regards established indies, new ways of doing business and of reaching customers and the broader community. Booksellers being nimble (eg, "I'm pregnant and isolating at home, and am taking the opportunity to rebuild our website") and collegiate (eg, virtual events hosted by multiple indies). The partnership with Bookshop.org. The boom in subscription services. Indies doubling up as publishers. I could go on...

How are you coping with working from home?
WFH is great for getting stuff done, no doubt about it. But I've always loved the sociability of the book trade and, during lockdown, missed my colleagues a lot. I also missed the serendipity of bumping into people; spontaneous, face-to-face conversations; being able to nip over to a colleague's desk to run something past them or clarify a matter. I worried that some of the creative elements of the job were being lost. For many people, office life has changed profoundly - and perhaps irreversibly. As a consultant, I'm enjoying having regular in-person meetings with clients and am finding them invaluable and productive. Booksellers seldom have the option to work from home. I volunteer one day a week in a charity bookshop and serving the (real live) customers there is one of the highlights of my week. 

What do you most like doing when you're not working?
Reading, going to the cinema, walking, swimming at Hampstead Ponds, seeing friends, exploring London.

What is the best book you've read in the last year? 
Annie Ernaux' The Years, expertly translated by Alison Strayer. The book takes its place in a tradition (if that's the right word) of life writing stretching back to Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir and forwards to Rachel Cusk and Édouard Louis. However, it is very much its own thing. Ernaux writes both personally and collectively, building a collage made up of her memories of historical events, but also of snippets of dinner table conversations, advertising jingles, song lyrics, snapshots, political slogans and so on. And this is her genius: conveying in writing the experience of living through time. It's the only book I've ever read that I wish I'd written. 

What are you reading now?
Daunt Books' gorgeous edition of Marcin Wicha's Things I Didn't Throw Out, translated by Marta Dziurosz. Wicha's mother Joanna was a collector of everyday objects (including paperback books). On her death, it falls to him to go through her belongings; as he does so, he constructs a picture of her and traces the course of her life. Wicha, once described as Poland's answer to David Sedaris, has produced an account that is as tender as it is funny. I'm also halfway through Charlotte Brontë's Villette, which I'm reading for the first time, prompted by a course on Jane Eyre I did in the spring. And I haven't been able to resist taking a look at Percival Everett's Erasure, recently reissued by Faber with a new introduction by Brandon Taylor.

How do you like to read: on screen, on paper, or do you listen to audiobooks?
On paper.