Blackwells vs Foyles

I’ve been meaning to mention this for about a year. I remember it every time I go shopping for books on Charing Cross Road, but then forget it by the time I get to a computer.

What happened to Blackwell’s computer books department?

When Blackwell’s first opened their branch on Charing Cross Road (some time in the last five to ten years) they had a great computer books department. The only shops in London that could compete with it were the Waterstones up near the University of London and Foyles. The Waterstones was too far away from all the other bookshops and Foyles… well Foyles was “organised” in such a way that it was impossible to find a book[1]. Blackwell’s fast became the place where I bought most of my computer books.

But about a year ago, their computer book department suddenly lost a third of its shelves. They were given over to business or economics or something like that. And over the following months it continued to shrink. It’s now an embarassing shadow of it’s former self forlornly clinging to a few bookcases in the far corner of its previous space.

I know that the computer books market is going through a bit of a bad patch (I’m a computer book author, I know how bad it has got) but this seems to me to be a bit of an over-reaction.

Luckily (well, in one sense) the old lady who ran Foyles died a few years ago. And apparently the bizarre layout was her idea. So now their books are arranged in a far saner fashion. So I do most of my book browsing there now. I say “browsing” because, like most of the world, I do my actual buying from Amazon.

[1] “Where are your books on Perl?” “They’re organised by publisher, so most of them are in the O’Reilly section, but there are also some by various other publishers scattered around the department.”

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10 Comments

  1. Perhaps Blackwell shrunk its computing section precisely because “like most of the world, I do my actual buying from Amazon”! :)

    I wonder if Amazon and the internet has actually led to the decline of the computing book market: shelf space shrinks because people are buying online, so readers aren’t aware of books that they would otherwise see through browsing, so they don’t buy the books they would have done because they aren’t aware of them. I always like to look at a computing book before I buy it anyway, to check the tone and style, so I probably don’t buy the books that I would have done if I’d seen them first.There are of course other arguments like the vast amount of computing material available online, but the Amazon effect is probably true to some extent, I reckon.

  2. Good point. And I understand that the computer books market has been far more effected by Amazon than any other market.But that doesn’t explain why Foyles and Waterstones still have a large computer books department. Even the Borders on Charing Cross Road has a larger Computing section than Blackwell’s.

  3. Well Blackwell was established in Oxford as an academic bookseller, and its shop here has a huge basement mainly aimed at academia. So they might just be moving back towards what they see as their core audience of academics and students. After all, the prices of textbooks are shocking, so there is likely to be a fair amount of profit in there.

  4. I used to buy loads of computer books, but got tired of carrying them to and from work. Also, I bought quite a few that never actually got opened at all. I found everything I wanted online.

    I only get a few now and then for fun now.

    Isn’t Blackwells supposed to be a legal bookshop?

  5. In Windsor, there are two bookstores. Both used to have about six bookstacks worth of computer books – a really nice selection with O’Reilly and similar good quality texts well represented.

    Now, there are about 1/3 of that volume and they are nearly all Dummies books, Teach Yourself X in Y days books, and Getting Started with Windows Z books. I don’t even bother looking anymore.

  6. se71: no, Blackwell isn’t a legal bookshop exclusively, but because it carries a lot of academic books there is a large law section, especially in Oxford which has a large amount of law teaching at the University. Pretty much the entire back wall of the Blackwell basement in Oxford is given over to law, and it’s huge!

  7. Hi Dave —

    I agree with Ian that shopping in a physical store and buying online for better prices is a good way to make sure that you eventually lose the option of shopping in the local store. Carrying inventory costs money, so you’re effectively using a service that you’re not paying for. Eventually, the service will no longer be offered.

    (I wrote a piece about this a few years back called “Buy where you shop.“)

    Amazon is not the cause, though, of the current decline of computer book sections. That damage was done years ago. Amazon’s sales increases have flattened out, but the market as a whole has shrunk dramatically since 2000, along with the dotcom bust. 2005 is slightly above 2004 in sell through, which has led me to think the market is turning around (along with all the new startups and other excitement in tech!), but the bookstores are slow-responders, and are finally throwing in the towel on computer books just when they would be rewarded for staying the course.However, I’ll add that the mix is changing quite a bit, as you can find a lot more reference material online.I’ve written about tech book trends on radar.oreilly.com from time to time. You’ll find some interesting graphs there.

  8. Tim,

    Thanks for adding a comment. I realise that browsing in shops and buying online is not a good idea. I should point out that my “I do my actual buying from Amazon” line was slightly flippant. Often the idea of having the book in my hand there and then overrides the few pounds I’ll save by buying online. Also I’m pretty much incapable of leaving a book shop without a new book in my hand.

    Of course, Amazon also realise the usefulness of browsing a book before you buy. Which is why they’ve added the “look inside” functionality over the last couple of years.

    But none of this addresses my main question. Which is why has Blackwell’s computer book section shrunk so quickly. I accept that all booksellers are shrinking their computer book sections, but Blackwell’s seem to have shrunk their section far more quickly than other shops.

  9. Hi Dave

    I thought you needed a good explanation, so I asked our London Representative, Craig Smith, to make a comparison between the achievements of Blackwells and Foyles both on Charing Cross Road. Here we go –

    “The Managers of bookshops have tough decisions to make. They need to run their shop for maximum profit in a time of declining book sales. They look at the shop as a whole and use existing sales information to decide where to spend the limited budget they have. If the sales of a particular section are declining, year-on-year, they need to make a decision whether to reduce the space and budget allocated to it. In the case of computing, sales have been declining since the dotcom bust, and so, many bookshops, (not just Blackwells on Charing Cross Road in London) have chosen to decrease the size of their Computing section. To an extent, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy – as the section is reduced, so the customers see less choice and less commitment on behalf of the bookshop, and they take their custom elsewhere.

    Foyles, directly opposite Blackwells on Charing Cross Road, is a unique institution which went through years of malaise. They came under new management just as computing sales were declining. Because the section (and the shop as a whole) had previously been underperforming, improvements in their inventory management and overall approach meant sales improved just at the right time. Management saw a section that was growing and backed it with a sturdy budget and abundant shop space. The customers who were disenfranchised elsewhere found a refreshing commitment at Foyles, and that, coupled with a succession of interested and dedicated booksellers, created consistent growth that bucks the trend in computing sales. For me, this shows that a well-stocked computing section will attract customers who are grateful for the effort the shop has made, the very model of building sales.

    For the record, Blackwells Charing Cross Road still has 14+ bays of computing, including a bay and a half dedicated to O’Reilly. It is still a strong section, albeit half the size it used to be, which the management have stated will not be reduced further, and their sales have accordingly improved.”

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