The Book Depository managing director Kieron Smith is enthusiastic about the future of the online book industry, despite having previously almost given up on it. He has spent the majority of his career in online roles within the book trade, but jumped ship in 2003 when his beating the drum about the possibilities of online fell on deaf ears.
Smith feels the industry bowed down to Amazon and wasn’t prepared to compete online. “Everyone waved the white flag and said: ‘Amazon wins’,” he says.
Smith switched allegiances to join a retailer that sold a more high-tech form of entertainment – Game. “I’d pretty much given up on the book industry,” he recalls. “Borders and Ottakar’s had no transactional web sites and Waterstone’s had given its site over to Amazon.”
But his passion for books won through and he soon moved back to doing what he loves most. After helping launch Waterstone’s e-commerce site, he joined start-up Bookrabbit.com. But when Smith and six others were suddenly made redundant in July, The Book Depository chief executive Andrew Crawford snapped them up.
Having had his frustrations with the industry, Smith is now a man on a mission. “I’d like to see a vibrant online bookselling market,” he says. “Amazon owns 92 per cent. There’s room for us to turn that around.”
And he has more wide-ranging ambitions, too. “There is a cultural importance attached to bookselling, and reading for pleasure is in danger. The industry needs to be more positive about books. With gaming, there is a real appetite to get the product on the day of release. I’d like to see this excitement with books.”
Smith believes The Book Depository is firing on all cylinders and the business has certainly made an impact since its launch in 2004. Its turnover in its first year of trading was£2.3 million and for the year to June 30, this rocketed to£40.2 million.
He maintains it is one of the fastest growing retailers in the UK, as well as the largest dedicated online bookseller. It can dispatch up to 1.8 million titles within 48 hours and posts up to 100,000 parcels a week worldwide with free shipping. This sets it apart from rivals, says Smith. “No one is near us in terms of availability,” he says. “What we’ve got in 48 hours, others have in one to two weeks, because we use 45 different supply networks. It’s quite a strong proposition.”
And Smith plans to make it stronger. Although the e-tailer shelved plans to open stores, it is creating a new site from scratch in time for November, which will have additional features rather than added content, improving the search function, presentation and branding. “We want to polish our e-commerce offering, as well as give our customers more offers. We have amazing visitors, so why not flog them extra stuff?” he says.
Smith’s head for retail was formed at a young age, when he had a Saturday job at WHSmith. He then returned to the company for a management development programme after completing a politics degree. At 24, he was store manager at WHSmith in Streatham, south London, where he got turned on to selling books. However, despite looking back on his time there fondly, he believes the retailer – among others – needs shaking up.
“When I walk into WHSmith, Waterstone’s and Borders, I see exactly the same books,” sighs Smith. “And Borders was very late to market with its transactional web site. I’m still struggling to find what its online unique proposition is.”
The Book Depository claims its point of difference is speed of delivery and breadth of titles – it has sold 350,000 different titles in the past few months. Another thing that sets it aside is its indifference to e-book readers, which WHSmith, Borders and Waterstone’s are selling. “I’ve never had a customer ask me for a digital book. It’s not a huge market now, but we’ll think about it in future.”
For the moment, The Book Depository wants to concentrate on getting physical books as far around the globe as it can. It ships to 30 countries and wants to increase this to 60 within a few years, with country-specific sites in some of its markets.
“We want to be all books to all people,” says Smith. “It’s a big old task.” But for Smith, who by his own admission likes things done quickly, it should just be a matter of time before he reaches his target.
Family: married, with two children
Interests: reading, US dramas, writing
Education: politics degree, postgrad in management, MBA from Open University
Favourite book read this year: Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
2008-present: managing director, The Book Depository
2007-08: divisional managing director, Bookrabbit.com
2006-07: head of e-commerce, Waterstone’s
2003-06: head of online operations, Game Group
2001-03: head of operations, Methven’s Booksellers
2000-01: head of internet site management, BCA Interactive
1998-2000: various Ottakar’s roles, latterly internet site manager
1993-98: various WHSmith roles, latterly multi-site store manager