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