Week 20/20 – week ending 15 May

BA launches fund to help booksellers reopen

The Booksellers Association (BA) launched a £50,000 fund to help its independent members prepare to reopen their bookshops once lockdown restrictions have been lifted. A phased reopening of shops will begin on 1 June, but it is not known whether bookshops will be among them, and the BA has asked the government to make clear what booksellers’ status will be.

BA members will each receive £50 (or € equivalent) to subsidise the purchase of protective materials such as screens. The BA will also provide POS including safe distance signage, floor vinyls, posters and shelf talkers.

A survey of members showed 45% feeling strongly that bookshops should be deemed essential and allowed to reopen. Thirteen per cent strongly disagreed. Shops that are open to supply books directly reported that that were trading at 20% of normal turnover levels. Sixty-five per cent of stores expected to reopen partially when restrictions were lifted, 30% expected to open fully, and four per cent said that they would not reopen.

Meryl Halls, BA MD, said: “Bookshops need to be in possession of clear guidance on safe re-opening protocols. Our bookshops need to know their staff and customers are going to be safe and responsibly cared for in the new era. The mood of our membership tells us that they are keen for bookshops to be deemed essential, though need to be able to trade safely. We will be working to support them every step of the way.

“There is a lot of concern amongst booksellers as to how best to prepare for the practical realities of re-opening bookshops once lockdown restrictions are lifted. Above all, the consensus among members has been the safety of staff is paramount. We hope that this fund will ease some of that anxiety for our members, helping them to ready their businesses so that they, their staff and customers can return to bookshops safely and with confidence.”

The BA plans to circulate a list of protective screen suppliers to members, and is working with Gardners to provide PPE equipment including disposable face masks and shielding face visors.

BA Guide to Social Distancing on Reopening

More podcasts from Comma Press

Comma is expanding it digital project, The Comma Press Podcast, with a second series looking at the future: ‘future-set fiction, including sci-fi, speculative fiction and future-looking literary fiction. Episodes feature authors, translators, editors and academics in conversation about the influence of genre, and how science-fiction and writing about the future can and has changed and expanded horizons for readers and writers.’

The six episodes are:
1 The History of the Future
2 Iraq +100: Stories from a century after the invasion
3 Palestine +100: Stories from a century after the Nakba
4 Europa28: Writing by Women on the Future of Europe
5 Settling the World with M. John Harrison
6 The Book of Shanghai

The series features: ‘award-winning translator Sophie Hughes, acclaimed author Kapka Kassabova and New Wave master M. John Harrison,’ and is available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Soundcloud.

The first series delved into Comma’s History-into-Fiction anthology Protest: Stories of Resistance.

WH Smith hit by sales slump

April has proved the cruellest month at WH Smith, with the company reporting an 85% drop in sales. More than 300 high street branches have been temporarily shut in the UK, although 130 hospital stores remain open.

The news came in a statement released alonside the company’s results for the six months to February 2020, which showed a stable pre-Covid performance. Sales rose by seven per cent to £747m, with profits of £63m, down marginally from £65m.

Carl Cowling, group chief executive, said: “The emergence of Covid-19 and the associated global pandemic has affected all of us in ways that were unimaginable only a short while ago. I have enormous admiration for how our colleagues across WH Smith have responded to these unprecedented times and I would like to thank them all.

“Our primary focus over the past eight weeks has been to protect our colleagues across all areas of our business and our customers. We have supported many good causes and we have kept over 300 stores open to serve the communities that most need our services at this critical time, including the NHS and the communities that rely on the Post Office services we provide on the high street.

“There was very little impact of Covid-19 on our first half results, however inevitably the performance in the second half will be very different. During the first half, we continued to see strong sales growth in our Travel business with total revenue up 19%, driven by our ongoing investment and initiatives in our UK business and our growing international businesses. Trading profit in the first half was up 11%. Our recently acquired US business, MRG, continued to perform well and maintained its momentum of securing significant tender wins across major US airports. Our High Street business also performed well delivering Trading profit of £44m in the period.

“Since March, we have seen a significant impact on our business as a result of Covid-19, with the majority of our stores closed around the world. We were fast to react to the situation and issued new equity via a placing, raising c.£162m on 6 April 2020. We also secured an additional £120m of bank funding.

“We are a resilient and versatile business and with the operational actions we have taken including managing costs and the new financing arrangements, we are in a strong position to navigate this time of uncertainty and are well positioned to benefit in due course from the normalisation and growth of our key markets.”

In a section on the impact of Covid-19 on current trading, the retailer reported that ‘our online businesses have performed strongly, particularly in books where we have seen a 400% increase in sales during the past month,’ and that ‘in April, Group total revenue was down 85% on the same period last year, as expected, with Travel revenue down 91% and High Street revenue down 74%.’

Head Office staff were working from home ‘where possible’ and ‘distribution centres remain operational albeit at reduced capacity with effective social distancing measures in place.’

The retailer also reported that ‘stores that continue to trade have effective safety measures in place, including social distancing measures, PPE for colleagues’ use, protective screens at the till point, and guidelines to limit the number of customers in store.’

Head Office staff were working from home ‘where possible’ and ‘distribution centres remain operational albeit at reduced capacity with effective social distancing measures in place.’

The dividend has been scrapped and the new £120m credit line negotiated; as at 12 May ‘liquidity reserves’ were around £400m.

Bertrams put up for sale

Norwich wholesaler Bertrams has been put up for sale by its parent company Aurelius, The Bookseller can reveal, along with its subsidiary companies Dawson Books and Education Umbrella.

Middleton Barton Valuation (MBV), a company specialising in restructuring and asset recovery, has advertised for interest in the East Anglia-based “leading B2B books wholesaler” with sales of £250m. The businesses have not yet been placed into administration, it is understood, pending a possible sale.

The advert, which appears in The Bookseller today (Friday 15th May) and online, discloses the opportunity to “purchase the business assets of a leading UK books wholesaler to retailers both nationally and internationally” through the services of MBV. The advertised wholesaler has an “185,000 sq ft warehouse”, ” 200,000 titles held in stock”, and “access to over 13 million titles”, with a turnover of £249,642,000.

Along with the wholesaler, a “Leading Supplier of Print and Digital Content to Universities and Institutions” and a “UK Online Retailer of Educational Books and Digital Resources” are for sale. The turnover figures quoted in the advert match the numbers recorded in the latest accounts filed at Companies House for Bertrams, Dawson, and Education Umbrella, though in fact the accounting period was for 16 months from September 2017 to end-December 2018.

The development comes after Bertrams confirmed it was conducting a strategic review of its business, following the sale of its Wordery, Erasmus and Houtschild businesses.

The company has not responded to requests for an update on its situation since it sold Wordery and the Sunday Times reported that the company would appoint an administrator. At the time, Bertrams issued this response via its Twitter account: “We are not in administration. Apart from the sale of the businesses announced there is no change to the operations disclosed at the beginning of April which are in a furloughed state for the foreseeable future.”

A number of publishers are owed money by Bertrams, with invoices that pre-date the pandemic and UK lockdown. One independent press is owed “a five-figure debt”, which has impacted its cashflow “terribly”. Its owner confirmed the failure in “the distribution network has posed the single biggest threat to my business — we would otherwise still be on track to publish all titles this year and be able to sit tight through the crisis”. One publisher, based in Bath, confirmed Bertrams owed it £5,000, with another confirming its distributor is owed £15,000 by the company and was now “holding back on future sales”. Other larger publishers are also owed money, and have threatened legal action.

Larger publishers spoken to by The Bookseller were broadly supportive of the business, despite the outstanding debts, and remained hopeful that a buyer could be found, with speculation that it could organise a pre-pack administration, whereby a company arranges a deal to sell its assets to a buyer before appointing administrators to facilitate the sale.

BBC Two commissions book show hosted by Sara Cox

BBC Two is to air “Between The Covers”, a six-part TV show hosted by Sara Cox about the joys of reading.

Cactus TV has been commissioned by BBC Arts to make the programme, which will feature “some of our best known personalities chatting about their favourite books in a funny and warm-hearted half hour”.

It will see Cox joined by four famous faces and some of their best-loved books each week. The programme will also include a review section, with the panel discussing a book of the week, helped by the author on explaining their work.

Six featured books will be chosen for the series by the editorial team in conjunction with literary consultants who are not affiliated to any publisher.

Cox said: “I can’t wait to delve between the covers of some fantastic books with some of my most favourite people. This show will be welcoming and warm—we want to celebrate books, recommend some absolute crackers and have a good giggle while we do it.”

Cactus TV is the firm behind “Saturday Kitchen Live” along with Richard and Judy’s show that ran on Channel 4 for eight years and also included a book club segment.

Amanda Ross, c.e.o of Cactus TV, added: “I couldn’t be more excited that the BBC are championing books in a primetime slot on BBC Two. We will make sure we choose six amazing books as the centrepiece to the campaign to get as many people reading for pleasure as possible. Each week, our stellar panel, led by Sara Cox will inspire and entertain even reluctant readers to pick up a book.”

No details have been revealed yet of which date or time the show will air, but the BBC expects it to be broadcast later this year.