Predicting the next bestseller is just one part of a book buyer’s job. Hannah Davies speaks to Borders’ Rob Hughes about analysing data, spotting trends and schmoozing with publishers

Rob Hughes’ career path to Borders’ non-fiction buyer for biography and lifestyle was somewhat unconventional. With a six-year stint as a stand-up comic after graduating from the University of the West of England in 1995, six months in IT “for the money”, and a spell doing English-language teaching, Hughes acknowledges he got into bookselling in a “rather roundabout way”.

His first break into the trade was relatively flukey. “In 1999 I needed a job to support myself financially while I tried to make it as a comic. I’d always wanted to work in a bookshop so I applied for jobs at both Borders and Foyles, which are across the road from each other,” he explains. “Unfortunately, I accidentally muddled up the applications and put them in the wrong envelopes, so my Foyles application said I’d always wanted to work at Borders and vice versa. Thankfully, the Foyles manager wanted to find out who the idiot was, so he got me in for an interview and I ended up with the job.”

Evidently, the year working in Foyles’ maths and physics department made its mark, as after trying out his numerous other roles, Hughes returned to bookselling in 2003, joining Borders at its Brighton store.

Hughes says: “I just couldn’t be anywhere near as enthusiastic about a role outside the book trade. The best thing about my job is that I’m working with a product I’ve always wanted to work with.”

Hughes shifted to Borders’ head office in London after 18 months in Brighton, and quickly rose through the ranks from a position in operations to assistant buyer in charge of craft, DIY and home improvement, then to his current role in March 2008. Most of the buyers on his team also worked their way up from the stores. “Progress is very meritocratic. If a bookseller pays attention to what is selling in their section on the front line, that knowledge can easily be transferred to buying. If you know what you are talking about and you are deserving of it, the opportunities will arise.”

Quick reactions
A slightly less glamorous part of Hughes’ day-to-day role is the analysis of sales data. He spends the first half of each week examining the weekend’s sales of Borders’ top promotional books. He then ensures all the shops have been re-stocked with the right number of titles so they can continue being sold at the same rate. Hughes thinks this ability to react quickly is an essential skill for his job. “You can make what you think is the best decision in the world about a book, and it can absolutely tank, or you can think a book won’t sell even with a bag of sweets stapled to the front and it just goes mad. In the end it is about being able to admit you are wrong and change your decision.”

One thing Hughes says he does not get with his job is endless hours of reading. “Anyone who thinks we sit here with a pipe and a stack of history books that we slowly work through would be sadly mistaken.”

Hughes’ Essential Book-buying Skills:
Enthusiasm for books
Commercial awareness
Able to separate personal reading tastes from buying choices
Numerate and analytical
Able to admit a wrong choice and react quickly

You can read this entire interview on the bookseller by clicking here