Starting a book shop is a risky proposition nowadays when there’s so much competition from online juggernauts. However, book shops can survive and be profitable – the key is to find a unique selling point that web-based bookstores can’t offer. If you can tap into your target market and combine a love for literature with sound business sense, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t open a book shop.

Who is your target market?

In the past, book shops sold to all markets and all readers. Nowadays there is so much competition from online stores that real-world book shops will struggle if they try to be everything to everyone. You need a focused target market – in many cases a niche market – so that you are not competing with every bookseller around.

Your target market does not need to revolve solely around the books you sell. Some bookshops remain popular because they offer comfortable chairs, along with Wi-Fi and coffee, which draw customers in and increases the chance of a sale.

Making a decision as to your target market is the first step – market research is essential to see if your choice of audience and location matches potential demand. If it doesn’t, you should have a rethink.

Buying stock

Buying stock is an art form when it comes to book shops – you need to judge demand and ensure you don’t under- or over- order titles.

Stock is not such an important issue for specialist or niche book shops; people will likely visit you because they can’t or don’t know how else to get the book, so there’s unlikely to be a problem ordering the title in or posting it to them. However, if your book shop is more generalised, you can’t expect people to come back to pick up popular titles – they will simply go elsewhere.

You should try and get 30 day invoice terms so you can sell stock before paying your supplier – this is particularly useful in the early days of operation when you won’t have so much spare cash lying around.

Start-up costs

Start-up costs will vary widely depending on the type of shop you open – a second hand book shop, with its emphasis on low profit margins and high turnover, will require less investment than a cosy travel book shop with fresh coffee and armchairs.

Stock and rent will generally be the biggest costs for book shops that don’t focus on the second hand market. Rent will vary widely depending on location – mainstream book shops will need decent town centre premises with high footfall, and a large cross-section of stock. Specialist shops do not need to be so picky about location.

Starting a book shop could cost anything from £1500 to £25,000+ depending on all the factors mentioned above. Make sure you create an accurate budget for what you want to achieve or you could find your funding drying up quickly.

Training and development

You don’t need formal training to become a bookseller – the most important attribute is a constantly-updated awareness of what your target market is into. You need to stay ahead of trends and make sure that you provide a quality service, whether it’s advice on what to read or ordering upcoming books for pick-up.

Membership of The Bookseller’s Association (BA) or The Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA) may be appropriate, and help with customer trust.


Most books come with a recommended retail price printed on the back cover. These are meant as guidelines – you can price your books however you see fit. Bear in mind that customers are not likely to pay a premium for mainstream or easy-to-find books, but often will do so for specialist titles. This is obviously an advantage if you are dedicated to a niche.

Big supermarkets and book stores often discount popular books to the point that they are making a loss on each item. This is another reason why running a general book shop can be very difficult – you can’t compete with the buying power of the big boys. If you sell popular titles, don’t discount them because you feel obliged – it’s not a sustainable strategy.

Diversifying revenue streams

There are a number of ways that book shops can increase takings alongside their core services. All additional services must fit in with the brand and target market – coffee and Wi-Fi would not typically work in a second hand book-shop unless the decorum and atmosphere invited longer stays - most people would make fleeting visits.

However, if additional services do fit your brand, there’s no reason you can’t add them at a later date. Here are some possibilities:
  • Wi-Fi
  • Internet café/computers with webcams
  • Light refreshments and lunches
  • Selling writing supplies/bookmarks
  • Magazines and journals
  • LAN gaming

Marketing your book shop

Spreading the word about your book shop is important, but the type of marketing you conduct will depend on your target market. Specialist book shops are more likely to advertise in niche publications e.g. trade magazines, trade fairs, online forums. You need to get across your presence and expertise to potential customers that will most likely be already knowledgeable about the niche.

If your book shop is more general, then you’ll need to pursue more traditional forms of local marketing, such as advertisements in newspaper, promotions and competitions with schools and leaflets and flyers. Creating a targeted marketing plan will help identify areas that will yield the best possible return for your budget.

Insurance and compliance

Public liability insurance and professional indemnity insurance should be taken out when you start trading – although neither are mandatory they will protect you against bankruptcy in the event of third-party claims being made against you.

Stock is very important for book-shops – without stock the business cannot make a profit. Books can be ruined easily by water or fire, so you may wish to take out some form of business interruption insurance that will ease financial pressure should you be unable to run the shop, for example because of lost or damaged stock.

Once you start to employ staff, you’ll also need employer’s liability insurance, which covers lawsuits brought against you from former or current employees.