Sharmaine Lovegrove: ‘You must spend a year in a bookshop before you get a job in publishing’

I have a party trick. If you name three books you like and two you hate, I can write you a reading list of 10 books you will love.

I’ve gained this skill from two decades as a bookseller. Many questioned if I could become a publisher and run an imprint, as I hadn’t worked in-house. But I’ve worked in retailers from Foyles to the London Review Bookshop, from a bookstall under Waterloo Bridge in London to Waterstones in Edinburgh. And I’ve run my own bookshop in Berlin for seven years – yet my experience wasn’t valued by the publishing industry.

I’ve long been shocked at the disconnect between publishers and bookshops. The industry’s sole aim is to connect authors to readers by producing books from manuscripts. For many years this activity has been carried out by a small section of society for an even smaller subset of our nation.

If more people in publishing had worked in bookshops, it would radically change what stories are told. Seeing unexpected pairings of readers and books quickly dispels the idea of who reads what, why, how and when. Once the assumptions are gone, it opens up many different narratives to the widest range of readers.

Seeing the transformative experience of reading on customers’ faces is magic. Hearing people relay when they hated a book is fascinating. Advising people to read a book knowing it will take them away from family, friends and their screens teaches you the value of storytelling. The real joy is when they come back and tell you about something you didn’t like, but they loved – that is doing your job.

In Germany, you need to do seven years’ apprenticeship to become a bookseller. I believe you must spend a year serving customers and readers by working in a bookshop and a library before you get a job in a publishing house. We should no longer be allowed to stipulate who the reader is unless we have experience of them directly.

Sharmaine Lovegrove is publisher of Dialogue Books

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