Questions for: Nic Bottomley

Opinion - Bookselling Wednesday, 4th September 2019

Ahead of the Booksellers Association conference next Sunday and Monday, BA president Nic Bottomley contributes to our Q&A series

Describe your current job in one sentence.
Owner of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights and BA president.

What was your first job in the book industry?
Owner of Mr B's (eek).

Who has been the most influential person in your book career?
There are many, including the various booksellers who were so generous in their advice early on and some of my friends and colleagues at the BA. But the most influential are the people in our own team at Mr B's, and the biggest influence early on was probably by longest-serving colleague Ed Scotland. He arrived at Mr B's with a wealth of experience from different retail sectors. We had already created an identity and we thought we knew how to talk about books, but it turns out we still had a lot to learn. By just watching him, he taught me everything there is to know about how to engage with customers in a way that is genuine, creates long-term customer relationships, and also sells a lot of books.

"I feel we're at the forefront of a welcome improvement in dialogue between all the different elements of the industry"

How has the industry changed since you started?
We entered the industry at the very end of the "chains” vs indies", era and the beginning of the "high street booksellers vs one online behemoth" era. So tonally that's the biggest shift. There are of course lots of other shifts in terms of consumer behaviour, popularity of certain genres - there's been a real boom in narrative non-fiction of many types from nature to politics since we began. I feel also we're at the forefront of a welcome improvement in dialogue between all the different elements of the industry - trade bodies, wholesalers, publishers, distributors, agents, authors, bookshops - we're all now talking to one another and have a better sense of the challenges we each face.

What's the biggest challenge in your job?
In the old days when we set up the shop Juliette and I did literally everything. So now the challenge is to keep my nose out of the detail and concentrate on the things that I should be concentrating on (which are not always as fun as moving books around and chatting to customers about them).

What's the best piece of book-related advice you've been given?
This is a difficult question. The phrase that always sticks in my mind is one from the wonderful Harry Wainwright, who runs a great indie here in Bath called the Oldfield Park Bookshop and who's been in bookselling for many many years. He always talks about bookselling being about the "little victories" and he's right - that's what keeps you going on a tough day or makes you smile. The moment you find the perfect book for a kid who's not been into reading, or when you get a great order from a school, or someone says something nice to you about their experience in your shop. That's the stuff that drives you on and makes bookselling such a rewarding occupation even when big victories can be harder to come by.

What are the most interesting things you're seeing at the moment in the industry?
The strong and coherent voices across many companies and sectors for creating a greener and more efficient supply chain.

What do you think might be the next big thing?
Aside from a revolution in our thinking about what an environmentally responsible industry looks, I think it's just incredible to see a new generation of indie bookshops springing up being run by people with a myriad of different backgrounds and skill sets. For a good few years after we opened, new bookstores were thin on the ground, but now they're coming thick and fast and they all sound so exciting and look great. I'm sure they're going to push bookselling on to the next level of creativity and it's exciting to see.

What do you most like doing when you're not working?
Travelling with my family when I get the chance - I just got back from a big trip around Malaysia blowing the kids' young minds -, reading (naturally), listening to music/going to live music when I can, walking in the local countryside, following all kinds of sports….

What is the best book you've read in the last year?
Do you know, there hasn't been one that's absolutely blown my mind for a few months. When we were expanding the shop earlier this year my reading became a bit fragmented. On holiday I just read The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (not new of course), which was superb. Another one from that part of the world that I read earlier in the year was Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian pulp crime novel.

What are you reading now?
I'm reading Retail Therapy by Mark Pilkington because I'll be interviewing him at the BA Conference, and I'm also reading Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth - an Alaskan travelogue.

How do you like to read: on screen, on paper, or do you listen to audiobooks?
Paper, paper, paper. It's all about the physical.