Founded in 1879, Blackwell's is the leading academic bookstore in the UK. And right now, it's for sale.

During my time at Oxford it was one of my favorite places to be, an immersive book store where I could sit and read all day. It was the sort of niche academic place that had a wall with 30 copies of Superintelligence, as well as a popular enough place to have an in-store Starbucks. 

(They even once had an academic publishing arm. You can see their dozens of academic anthologies on Amazon such as Epistemology, Romanticism, Philosophy of Science and more.)

The famous Norrington Room (an underground cavern of books) feels very immersive and left quite an impression on anyone I brought with me.

The picture doesn't do it justice — but at least you can see that there's lots of books!

When I shared this news with friends earlier today, I wrote "In another world, I’d love to buy Blackwell’s and run it". I think that running a large business like this profitably would be difficult and exciting... I also suspect it would offer a lot of levers into the world of academic publishing and for building and shaping the growth of the intellectual scenes throughout the UK.

It seemed to me like a potential philanthropic opportunity for growing and shaping the academic and intellectual scenes in the UK, and so below I've written up a little of the case for what that might look like.

Epistemic status: I got excited about it and wrote this post in ~4 hrs. Currently more like a dream than a plan, and I don't have much familiarity with the storefront book retail industry (though I have published, printed and sold books). But I think it’s a real opportunity to consider.

Added: The main potential defeaters are that Waterstones/Barnes&Noble currently have an exclusive window to negotiate a deal, and that Blackwell's sold its prestigious publishing arm in 2007. While I think a resourceful enough person would have angles of attack to get around both, they do make the chance of success much lower.

Outline of the sections of this post:

  • Blackwell's has 18 stores and ~350 staff. It's in decline and available to buy, and I estimate it’s on sale in the range of $5-$15MM.
  • Blackwell's is a place with a long-held cultural space in Oxford and a respected brand.
  • Blackwell's is in a relatively good position to help grow and build the academic and intellectual scene in the UK, due to it being a respected former-publisher, book seller, event organizer, and having prime real-estate in many UK university towns.
  • I speculate that a 90th percentile successful outcome from running Blackwell's could look some of the following three outcomes:
    • 10x or 100x-ing our ability to broadly publish respected and widely-read books. This is due to being a respected academic publisher in the past, and potentially doing the same again in the future.
    • Reward scientists whose work is real and interesting leading to better scientific progress. This is due to being an academic marketplace that chooses what to buy and what to advertise.
    • Build up Rationalist/EA communities throughout university towns to 10x-100x the level of engagement. This would be due to holding regular events with authors and public intellectuals who have written books or are in-town, and building a local Rationalist/EA/other society around the bookstore and its events.
  • The capacity to run large functional organizations is rare and valuable in Rationality/EA, and I suspect people who gain this skill to be able to allow us to make moves we otherwise would not be able to (i.e. building new functional organizations on direct priorities).
  • This idea is most likely but-a-dream, because Waterstones/Barnes&Noble (two brands, one company) currently have a period of exclusivity in which to negotiate a deal. Also I do not plan to do this myself, and I do not have a founder-type person in mind for the job. But I thought I'd share the idea anyway because I felt excited about it. (And challenges of this magnitude have certainly been overcome in the past.)
  • If you think you could take on this job of managing 350+ people and have some basic taste in scientific research, and can imagine yourself working 60+ hour weeks on book retail, I would be kind of interested to know, and not just for this particular project. Email me at benitopace followed by @gmail.com.

The Business

The annual turnover is about £60MM (=$80MM) and Blackwell's has 18 stores and ~350 staff. (In 2012 Blackwell's had 45 stores and ~1000 staff, so it's cut a lot since then.)

Here are some comparisons of company’s revenue and sale price:

  • In 2018 Barnes & Noble was valued at less than 15% of its fiscal 2018 sales of $3.6 billion, at about $500 million (here).
  • In 2014 Books-A-Millions had annual revenue of $480MM, and was acquired for $21MM (though the buyer already had a 58% stake, so ~2x that for the overall valuation).

This suggests to me that Blackwell’s, with its turnover of around $80MM, will be priced between $5-$15MM.

It's a very different opportunity depending on whether the philanthropist wants this to make the money back soon or not. I don't think it's off the table to make the money back quickly, but Blackwell's is a business in decline, and perhaps the competition of online marketplaces means it's not that viable as a profitable company. 

A philanthropist would need to know up front whether it's okay with taking a large loss in expectation on this, and if not then they should only go ahead with a person or team they think will be likely to make a profitable business.

The Cultural Scene

Blackwell's is also a place with a long-held cultural space in Oxford and a respected brand. Here's a few quotes I found about the place to give you a sense of the place.

Blackwell's was the first to publish JRR Tolkien - before he became famous for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the bookseller published children's poem Goblin's Feet.

Over the years the bookshop has hosted many famous writers and well-known figures, from Oxford's own Sir Roger Bannister to John Lydon and Muhammad Ali.

David Prescott, the chief executive of Blackwell’s, said of the potential sale: "The sale of Blackwell’s represents a genuinely unique and exciting opportunity for any potential buyer to own a much loved and trusted bookselling brand.

I can think of few parts of my time at Oxford that were as cross-cutting across the entire academic experience of students, that had a direct connection to the broader intellectual atmosphere. The Oxford Union comes to mind which is certainly a large part and in many ways larger, but that's not on offer, it's passed on through the student body each year (and I've hear that there is intense politicking around that). There are of course other widespread student experiences like sports but that doesn’t connect to intellectual life very directly or broadly.

Growing the Intellectual Scene

Past intellectual movements have funded department chairs at universities, but I think that running one of the primary academic bookstores gives a very different approach to building and shaping the intellectual discourse in academia.

Blackwell's can:

  • Publish books under a respected academic brand (maybe, see below)
  • Host many large public events with authors
  • Choose what books to showcase and highlight throughout the universities of the UK
  • Choose what books to buy from academic publishers and set incentives there
  • And it has prime real estate in University towns throughout the UK

Note that Blackwell’s used to have a prestigious publishing arm, but they sold it in 2007. I don’t know whether it would be possible to buy it back, or to build a new one, though I’d bet that you could build a new one if you wanted to, and that Blackwell's is in a stronger position than many to do so, given its longstanding relationships with academia.

These are levers on the world that normally take a long time to build up. I think it could be a good philanthropic opportunity, if there was also someone who can run a business well and is interested in building up and shaping the intellectual environments throughout the UK.

What does a 90th percentile successful outcome look like here?

I think the answer is that the owner and key staff are able to have a strong guiding hand in the intellectual growth in the top universities in the UK (and potentially with growth into other countries like Europe and the US). Here are some quickly-generated overly specific stories:

  • 10x or 100x-ing the ability to broadly publish respected and widely-read books. A new researcher outside of academia comes up with a key perspective on our place in the world, a concept like existential risk or the alignment problem. They work with a great writer to publish an academically respectable book at Blackwell's, which is widely marketed and has public dialogues / debates about it at bookstores in every university town. The concept is discussed broadly within universities, and as a result it is accepted into academic and public discourse without the severe friction of being low-prestige. This occurs at 10x or 100x the rate this currently happens and many more interesting concepts and ideas are broadly discussed.
  • Reward scientists whose work is real and interesting. Broadly, throughout fields such as economics, philosophy, artificial intelligence, and more, Blackwell's is able to buy and advertise more books by functional academics who can think clearly and whose work isn't all going to fail to replicate or have no contact with the world. Speaking generally this makes academia more functional. Speaking more specifically, it helps these fields zoom in on falsifiable and interesting theories and leads those researchers to be better supported and make important discoveries and increase scientific progress in those areas.
  • Build up Rationalist/EA communities throughout university towns to 10x the level of excitement. These bookstores build local intellectual communities around them that focus on EA and rationalist ideas. The most interesting authors in the world visit to give talks, and they essentially do a tour of the EA/Rationalist societies at every university. (Or we could build a new society — I am always on the lookout for a chance to launch "The Society for the Prevention of Perils", a GPT-3-generated name that struck me.) This leads them to engage more with these ideas, and causes several top public intellectuals to engage seriously with the ideas of existential risk and more. Later on, they then play a valuable role in (for example) advocating for x-risk reduction policies.

I have long been interested in building a publishing arm for the Rationalist/EA community (and have gotten started a little), and also in building physical spaces in every great university town. One story is that this acquisition would speed things up substantially on both fronts, and also fit into other plans to help build up institutions around the top universities and intellectual hubs of the world. In that story, I think the possible wins are much greater.

Running a Functional Business Is Good (?)

Being able to manage a lot of people and build a functional retailer with 350 staff is hard. I know of only a small number of people in EA who have had the opportunity to work at senior levels on projects of this scale, and I suspect it's a skill that I will want for more of at some point before the singularity.

To be clear I have no projects in mind that require this that attack the current bottleneck that is the alignment problem, so in some ways it is preparing for a problem we may never face, but I think it is still a pretty broadly useful capacity and I honestly expect it will come in very handy in ways that don't look quite like "manage 100s of people" but more in ways like "build a 10s-of-people functional organization that does something new on purpose".

I also am of the opinion that building a successful company is good for the soul in some way? I am not sure how to say this, but to vaguely suggest that a lot of work in the EA space is pretty abstract and it's hard to tell when you're succeeding, and I think selling books profitably is a bit better at giving you feedback on this.

Closing Thoughts

This idea is likely but-a-dream, because Waterstones/Barnes&Noble (two brands, one company) currently have a period of exclusivity in which to negotiate a deal. Also I do not plan to do this myself, and I do not currently have a founder-type person in mind for the job. But I thought I'd share the idea anyway because I felt excited about it. (And challenges of this sort have certainly been overcome in the past.)

Also I have not looked into Blackwell's business in any detail. It's plausible the business is sufficiently poorly organized that re-organizing it would be very difficult — I understand there was some attempt to make the company employee-owned, which if it succeeded I imagine would make further changes to the company very difficult. And broadly I haven't worked in storefront retail at all and would not be that surprised to find very basic business challenges I haven’t anticipated that mean this idea is much harder than I think.

Contact Me

If you think you could take on this job of managing 350+ people and have some basic taste in scientific research, and can imagine yourself working 60+ hour weeks on book retail, I would be interested to know, and not just for this particular project. Email me at benitopace followed by @gmail.com.

Blackwell's in Oxford. Maybe you could run this place :)

(Update: purchased by Waterstones.)

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"This idea is most likely but-a-dream, because Waterstones/Barnes&Noble (two brands, one company) currently have a period of exclusivity in which to negotiate a deal." - probably this should be indicated a bit more prominently.

Added a note just below the epistemic status.

Though making clear you'd bid would likely change that deal.

If there aren't significant competition issues caused by any of those acquisitions...

It's hard for a company to be a monopoly at the same time as its sector is competed out of existence.

That logic won't necessarily save you from the regulators - the FTC filed to block Staples and Office Depot from merging on antitrust grounds, even while both were in the process of being out-competed by Amazon and considered by many to be heading to bankruptcy in the long run.

$5-$15M seems very cheap. I'm guessing that the buildings alone are  worth more than that (and it must at least own the Oxford one). Has anyone enquired about the actual price?

Conventional wisdom in the business world is that brick-and-mortar retail (and brick-and-mortar books in particular) is a declining business, because it can't compete effectively with online stores. So I'm really skeptical of whether this business is financial viable to survive without continuous infusions of external cash, let alone with enough slack to do things that aren't profit motivated.

What that means practice is you haven't actually pinned the cost down to the right order of magnitude. Neither of the business sales you mentioned is comparable; B&N is an online store and an eReader brand, Books-A-Million was sold in 2014 and since then appears to have diversified into a lot of other businesses. More importantly, the main cost isn't the sale price, it's taking responsibility for the operational losses. This doesn't tell me what order of magnitude that cost will be.

Building a publisher could be a thing, but owning this retail chain is strictly negative for that. You definitely aren't getting the relevant trademarks out of the deal and will not be able to publish under the brand, ever, unless you separately buy the trademarks from the 2007 buyer, and if you're going that route you're shopping for a publishing house not a bookstore chain.

(Copy-pasted from pre-publication comments on a Google Docs doc)

Good point the operating losses could add up to arbitrarily high amounts.

Not being able to publish under the brand also seems like maybe a deal breaker.

In this area, but potentially more impactful, would be buying academic publishers and using that as a lever to reform academia. Would be very keen to see an analysis of that.

+1. SSC argued that there was not enough money in politics, and I wonder to what extent the same argument applies to academic publishers. How much would it cost to buy top journals in every field? How much would it take to by Nature, or Science?

SSC argued that there was not enough money in politics

To be clear, SSC argued that there was surprisingly little money in politics. The article explicitly says "I don’t want more money in politics".

That’s right.

Noting that this is a question I'm also interested in

Indeed. No idea on the numbers, but my hunch would be buying (some part of) Elsevier, or one of the other academic publishers, would be more cost-effective than buying a coalmine - another bold-but-maybe-not-actually-crazy megaproject.

Wait — what use do you have in mind for a coal-mine?

You can reduce carbon emissions but ceasing mining, in a nuclear war you could hide in it, and in a post-apocalyptic world it would provide a good source of energy.

Your very own Swiss-army coal-mine! It can also be used as a hidden lair for secret planning, a well-heated winter home, and if you make a couple of changes to your strength training, a place to turn your personal exercise/workouts into valuable coal that you can sell for money.

I’d prefer starting rival and better institutions for peer review. And funding reviewers to do this. See Bit.ly/unjournal

Ah, cool. Good to see someone is thinking about this. I do wonder if, with sufficiently large resources, buying out a publishing company would nevertheless be more impactful, or even worth doing anyway, even if less impactful. But I have thought about this for about 10 seconds.

The publishing arm was sold to Wiley for £572 million, so it probably will be difficult to buy it back.  I would guess that the deal would have included something like a transfer of a trademark, which would make it difficult to restart publishing afresh under the name Blackwell's.

Yeah, this is the most likely reason to not ahead. Someone else suggested Blackwell's would have signed some legal agreement to not publish further, which would be a pretty severe obstacle.

I'm interested to understand why the publishing house is valued 10x the bookstore, I don't know why the book-publishers would make 10x-50x what the book-sellers do.

If someone was serious about this, I expect there's a good chance they could raise $10-$50m for it.

A donor could treat it as an investment with ~0% real yield. The main cost is the donor would be the opportunity cost of the investment returns that could have been earned otherwise (~5% per year?). This means it's ~20x cheaper than making a donation of the same amount, so equivalent to a donation of only $0.5 - 2.5m.

If you were also happy to run it for a social purpose without the expectation of profit, then you should be able to outbid Waterstones etc.

This is a great reminder for us to be more opportunistic in our search for high-impact ways of doing good!

I like that you wrote this article to suggest a cause I'd never remotely considered.

I think it raises good questions on what brands EA could buy. By analagy FTX (Sam Bankman-Fried's crypo company) has made a lot of sponsoring Tom Brady (A huge american football star) and others to build their brand.

See Nathan's brainstorming thread here -- could EA benefit by buying a top academic journal, funding an EA-themed department at a prestigious university, buying a newspaper?  Maybe an esteemed grantmaking organization like MacArthur, or a DC think-tank?

This is cool, insightful, and creative. Thanks for making this post.

I do take issue with a prerequisite being 60+ hour weeks… there are many highly successful executives who work much less than that. Hours don’t necessarily correlate to production, and I expect unnecessarily including that in this post could filter out people who are very worth hearing from.

You're welcome.

Re hours: maybe? Personally I only imagine that being true for someone who's worked in this sort of retail before. If you haven't, and expect do a good job, then I reckon you'll be scrambling to get oriented and execute for at least several months if not the first year. Especially so if it's a business in decline and you're working to pull it out.

Strong disagree (I’d probably go so far to say that my prior on someone who plans to work 60 hours per week on this is lower that my prior on someone intending to work 40 hours), but doesn’t seem worth debating.

Beaten to the punch by a big established player! Grr, I'll not forget this one Waterstones. Someday I'll have my own publishing company and you'll rue the day you bought Blackwell's from under me...

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