Starting a Bookshop
Some people think Felicity Rubinstein has gone completely mad. Three years ago she and her business partner, Sarah Lutyens, not content with having run a literary agency for the last 20 years, opened a bookshop—that’s right, a bookshop, Lutyens & Rubinstein—in a slightly sleepy yet groovy corner of Notting Hill, in London.
“People reacted in one of two ways,” says Rubinstein. “They would either say, ‘Is it really true? The Messiah is coming and you’re opening a bookshop?’ Or ‘Can it possibly be true? Have you gone completely mad?’” Their fantasy had in fact been cooking for a while. “The bookshop thing was something we talked about, though not in a very serious way,” says Rubinstein. “But then at a dinner party somebody said, ‘Oh, you should talk to so-and-so’—he owned a building and wanted the space in it to be a bookshop.” That particular one didn’t work out, but it got them looking seriously. “In part it was really to do with the way bookselling is changing,” Rubinstein explains. “It was getting harder and harder for the kind of authors we represent to find a platform, and we just had this idea that if we had a shop we could sell authors directly to the readers.”
That big change in bookselling started with the huge rise in discounting that followed the abandonment of the net book agreement and fixed prices. “Books could go into supermarkets and be discounted or racked together in Waterstones in offers,” says Rubinstein. “Which meant that books that sold a lot could now sell a lot more.” The corollary was that the kind that didn’t sell a lot got squeezed, “and some of those were authors we particularly liked and in some cases represented,” says Rubinstein. “Back then, pre-Amazon, when we looked at what was being sold in supermarkets—the three-for-two offers in Waterstones—they weren’t what we wanted to read. They were conventional and formulaic and not terribly interesting.”
Nonetheless, it was agenting, not retail selling, that was familiar turf to Rubinstein: her father, Hilary—who died suddenly, shortly after I talked to her—was a literary agent himself, a well-known figure in publishing for many years, while her mother, Helge, had been a distinguished marriage guidance counsellor as well as a talented cook and author of books on food. But Rubinstein herself came to agenting through publishing; her first job was in New York at a small agency that dealt with film, television and theatre rather than books. After a few years spent there and traveling around North America, Rubinstein took a job at Viking Penguin in New York, eventually returning to England, where she worked in publishing for about 10 years before opening her own agency. “Agents should know how the other half thinks!” she says. She’s also married to a publisher—Roland Philipps, the managing director of John Murray—and so the relationship continues, though possibly imperfectly. “In some ways I think it would be much better if he were a landscape architect,” says Rubinstein, only half-joking, “like Sarah [Lutyens]’s husband, Mark Lutyens.”
After some inconclusive hunting, Rubinstein had a bit of serendipity. She was meeting someone for lunch in Notting Hill who was late, looked around at shops while she was waiting, and called an estate agent who had a rental sign up for one. “He couldn’t tell me what the rent was, because the place was already under offer,” says Rubinstein. “But he did have a new shop that had just come on the market that day, so it didn’t even have a sign up. And it was this one. I suddenly realized I’d always imagined the bookshop being here,” she continues. “There’s something about the staircase that’s lovely.”
Indeed, the shop’s two floors are joined by a rather remarkable spiral staircase. Though it occupies a large chunk of the most valuable—in conventional selling terms—front part of the shop, it also opens up the downstairs space, where a sliding bookcase separates agency—which they were finally able to move out of Rubinstein’s basement—from bookshop; after hours the store can take advantage of the full space for events—readings, launches, signings, even book-club meetings. “There’s room for 53 people exactly,” says Rubinstein. “I know this precisely, because the other night some of them were sitting on the stairs and so forth, but had there been one more person they would not have been able to see or hear anything.” Lutyens & Rubinstein, the shop, is open seven days a week and keeps long, New York–style hours.
The agency’s clientele is wide-ranging—”We represent anything that for one reason or another interests us,” says Rubinstein—and the shop’s deliberate aim is not to specialize at all. Early on, when they were setting it up, it became clear that there was core stuff that any good bookshop just had to carry. A chance remark of a friend to Rubinstein proved invaluable: “I don’t mind going into independent bookstores and buying books there,” she said, “but if I go in and they haven’t got Slaughterhouse 5 or any George Orwell then obviously I have to leave.” “So I got this idea,” says Rubinstein, “that people who love books judge a shop not by the book they want, but whether it has the right supporting cast, as it were.”
This concept—that there are certain books that have to be in a shop before you can take it seriously—became a sort of game, as Lutyens and Rubinstein went around asking people what titles no good bookshop should be without. Interestingly, the same names came up over and over again. “P.G. Wodehouse and Jane Austen, obviously,” says Rubinstein. Less obvious, perhaps, was Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. “It’s a great book,” says Rubinstein, “but in a way the answers are somewhat like what happens on Desert Island Discs—people are showing off a bit. They’re concerned about what their list says about them. So A Fine Balance is perfect. The blurb on the cover makes it sound as if it might be depressing, when in fact it’s amazingly uplifting.” Most importantly, she adds, “I would absolutely recommend it to anyone.”
Just as important to knowing what to stock was getting a pro to run things. “We have a really experienced manager, Claire Harris,” Rubinstein says. “She knows exactly what she’s doing. We always knew that we would hire a manager, though it took a while to find her. This whole thing was so Marie Antoinettish, we hadn’t a clue what we were doing. And while we needed a proper bookshop manager, it also had to be someone who would allow it to be our shop, and that’s worked out incredibly well.”
The shop carries a bit of everything, including poetry and children’s books. “We used to mix the poetry in alphabetically with everything else, but a literary editor came in and made a fuss about it,” says Rubinstein. “Plus too many people were asking where the poetry section was. In the end, we’ve done better by making it into a section.” The agency’s authors are all represented, needless to say, and do get something of an extra push from the sales staff from time to time, but otherwise there’s no discrimination. “We have to have everything,” Rubinstein points out. “It’s not just our authors. For one thing, we have a small, focused client list, and although this shop is a little one, it has about 6,000 books, so that’s a huge number.” She does admit, though, that she originally thought they might punish authors who’d left the agency by not carrying them. “There was one who’s married to a friend of mine and who behaved badly,” she says. “I thought we wouldn’t have his book, but it turns out you cannot do that. That’s not how we work.”
As well as finding out what kinds of books customers expect to see when they walk into a shop, Rubinstein and Lutyens have also refined their knowledge about what they’re willing to spend once they’ve found something they want. It’s fascinatingly nuanced. “If someone says ‘I really want to try someone I haven’t read before,’ we could give them a book that’s priced at £18.99, but that’s too much,” says Rubinstein. “For that customer, £18.99 is what you spend on an author you absolutely know you want to read. It’s tried and tested—not an experimental book.”
It turns out that there’s a whole algorithm at work here; Rubinstein cites the experience of Jane Finigan, one of her younger employees in the agency. “She had an author whose second novel was about to come out, and to her horror she learned that the publisher was going to price the hardback at £18.99,” she explains. “That’s a price that is, essentially, designed to be discounted. Independent bookshops don’t do that—they can’t—but it’s the way Amazon or Waterstones works. They’ll list an £18.99 book at £5 off, so it’s sold at £13.99. And this book of Jane’s was one that should be £13.99. A hardback from Amazon is always, always slashed. The new Hilary Mantell [Bring Up the Bodies] is £20, but on Amazon it’s £11.99. That’s a big discount, but it’s based on the fact that they’re expecting very big sales. It’s almost like a loss leader. Something else might be £20; if they’re not expecting it to sell particularly well, then they might slash it to £18.99.”
In the case of Jane’s author, what the agency was able to do was to go back to the publishers and show that the £18.99 price would suggest that they were only expecting to sell his book through very big outlets, mainly online, whereas in fact the first book by this particular author had done very well in independent bookshops. “He’s a very brainy, intellectual, difficult, funny author,” Rubinstein explains. “So we asked them to look at it again—at £18.99, we said, we couldn’t possibly persuade someone to buy the book, whereas at £15.99 we could.” In other words, they showed the publisher that if they didn’t make the price work for independent bookshops, they wouldn’t be selling the book in the very outlets where it was likely to do well. “It gives us a way of coming back to publishers from the other direction,” says Rubinstein.
Beyond the Lutyens & Rubinstein–represented books that Lutyens & Rubinstein stocks, the agency is connected to the shop in a multitude of ways, not the least of which is the fact that they literally share the same space. “I think physically being on the premises is incredibly important,” says Rubinstein. “I have to come through the shop a minimum of twice a day.” She and Lutyens often put in time in the shop, and everyone who works for the agency has to be willing to work shifts on the shop floor as well. “They can’t do returns or complicated things,” she adds, “but they can sell you a book and know where the book you’re looking for might be.” Conversely, the shop employees all read manuscripts for the agency.
The constant contact with retail customers has also given the agency other insights. “It gives us a very different way of talking to publishers,” says Rubinstein. “Not when we’re selling them a book so much, but when they talk about what they’re planning to do to promote it, we can tell them that won’t work.” For example, when a publisher is considering a cover design for a book that they think will sell mainly in independent shops, Rubinstein can say with absolute authority, “This jacket won’t appeal to that kind of customer.” Before this, she feels that as agents she and Lutyens used to think, “Oh, well, I guess the publishers know and we really don’t.”
“Having the bookshop has made us much tougher about the writers and books we take on as agents, too,” says Rubinstein. What they’ve learned since opening the store was that it was possible to find authors and books that they knew they could get a publisher for—but that they wouldn’t necessarily want to recommend to a reader. And that may be the most valuable insight of all. “It takes much more passion to sell one book,” says Rubinstein, “than it does to sell rights to a publisher to print thousands.”
The hidden truth in the old book business chain of author/agent/publisher/shop was that successful books allowed publishers to give advances to less successful authors or to niche books so they could flourish—whereas the new simpler model of author/outlet is just about the survival of the fittest. It seems possible that eventually readers will have only the successful to choose from, and that this story is being played out in the news right now—might we really end up with only Amazon as a source of books? It may be that agents such as Lutyens & Rubinstein will only survive if they support what buyers of books from independent stores really want to read. And that’s what it’s about: being out there on the front lines, selling authors you’re passionate about to readers who are also passionate, one book at a time.