Newcomer hopes to turn a new page at Exclusive Books
Exclusive Books CEO Grattan Kirk is more general retail than bookish, and looks more rugby player than reader.
In the privately held company's stylish warehouse-feel head office in Kramerville, Sandton, he smiles when telling of friends who questioned how he got the job seven months ago, given that he's not a big reader.
But hardline retail expertise is what Exclusive Books needs urgently, and Kirk, with more than 20 years' experience in several high-level retail positions, is turning around the underperforming company.
He's been surprised by the collegial nature of the industry, which, he says, is "outstanding". "Where I come from, you fought your competitors hard to get to the customers' wallet, which makes the heart of this industry really fabulous."
Coming from the consumer electronics side (as CEO of Incredible Connection), he worked at furniture retailer JD Group as CEO, leaving when Steinhoff took it over. After that, he spent five years at Tiger Brands.
It wasn't all that genteel earlier this month when the Sandton City launch of Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule's Web of Capture was abandoned and the Cape Town launch postponed.
Book launches are usually pretty tame affairs. You're supposed to RSVP if you're attending, and really only known guests are invited. "We didn't know there was going to be 50 uninvited guests," says Kirk, referring to the disruption of Pieter-Louis Myburgh's book by people claiming to support ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule.
"It was chaos. That doesn't happen at a book launch. Then there was ripping of books. In book terms, that's the biggest insult. You can't go around tearing up people's books. That's a huge affront to democracy and freedom of speech. This was so well organised. The group was bussed in."
Kirk was upset about the outrage on social media immediately afterwards after the V&A leg was canned, painting the company as cowardly with no backbone.
He says police at the V&A would have been unable to be there if needed because of service-delivery marches in Cape Town that day, and his insurance company had warned that Exclusive might not be covered.
"I didn't want an event with armed security. It's just not appropriate for a book launch. My hands were tied."
Kirk didn't know much about the book before it was launched. It's a nondisclosure title, which means no-one other than the publisher knows the subject matter. "I just knew it was a big book on government and was classified as an exposé."
A "nondisclosure" title arrives in the store generally on a Friday, in a sealed box. The first books are placed on the shelves at 8am on Sunday. "It can't be put out before then. You can then do social media and advertising; then all hell breaks loose."
What constitutes a big book in SA, a notoriously small book market? Sales of 20,000 are deemed excellent, while 5,000 is good.
A quarter of the company's sales are from the top-100 titles. Fiction is the biggest category, and, within that, paperbacks. Business titles are popular, especially leadership books. Self-help is big, and the pan-African category is growing aggressively. The children's category comprises about 29% of sales.
While book sales have been on the decline since 2015, recent indications suggest a shift in the air.
The Guardian newspaper says former US first lady Michelle Obama's memoir, Becoming, which sold more than half-a-million copies in less than two months, has helped the UK book market to a fourth consecutive year of growth. Book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan shows the print book market in the UK grew 2.1% in value and 0.3% in volume last year.
In the US, print-book sales grew 1.3% last year compared to 2017, according to global information company NPD Group. Writers are flourishing in the audio sector.
Exclusive Books has seen low single-digit growth since December, so sales are improving, but much needs to be done to turn the company around. Kirk has 12 months to get it profitable; he's now seven months into the job and says he's 60% there. He expects profitability from September.
Kirk is a shareholder in the company, with private equity firm Global Capital the majority owner. Before he took over, the company had moved to a R5m head office, opened a swish restaurant in high-rental Hyde Park and set up its own EB Café in numerous stores. Kirk is moving the head office to Killarney Mall, and the warehouse is shifting to Cleveland - both with lower rents.
Coffee shops in the stores had been Seattle before they were taken over by Exclusive Books. "Now we're delighted to be back with Seattle," says Kirk.
He's been renegotiating leases with landlords ("begging on my knees", he says). But he's been surprised by the willingness to accommodate Exclusive Books.
The next phase will be about growing the business. It will open stores in the Mall of Africa, Fourways Mall and Windhoek, Namibia, in the next three to four months. It has also identified 15 shopping centre sites that can accommodate an Exclusive Books store in the next two to three years.
The plan is to close possibly two stores where book sales don't cover the rent.
"If you chat to me about genres, content and authors, I won't really be able to help you . yet. I'm not in the business long enough.
"But you don't have a business if you don't have a commercially sound business model."