Black Reading Lady Secret Bookseller logo on red background


When you run an Indie bookshop, the occasional compliment from a customer should really be reward enough. Only the other day in fact, a young lady came in and proclaimed:

Wow. This shop is so random.

This of course is youth-speak for “delightfully well-stocked.”

Sometimes, however, customer comments simply aren’t enough and it soon becomes clear that only a trophy or significant piece of silverware will do. It’s at these times you’ll be thinking: Nibbies!

(not to be confused with Nibbles, which I tend to think about the rest of the time.) 

The Nibbies or British Book Awards are the book equivalent of the Oscars but with less mainstream appeal and coverage.

It’s hard to envisage the general public getting very excited about Rights Professional of the Year, Non-traditional Retailer of the Year or indeed Independent Bookshop of the Year, yet the awards are highly regarded by many within the book industry itself.

The Nibbies were introduced in 1990, when the UK Author of the Year award went to Prince Charles. This may have been for his steamy royal bonk-buster novels (the largely forgotten Joy of Saxe-Coburg series) but was probably as a result of his children’s book Old Man of Lochnagar, published a whopping ten years earlier. No, me neither.

Prince Charles still spends many an hour (or up to an hour) co-writing books to this very day, so the award obviously did him no harm in terms of literary longevity.


Black Reading Lady Secret Bookseller logo on red background


Once you’ve decided, as a bookshop owner, that you want to be up there with the likes of Prince Charles and other hallowed Nibbies nominees from down the years:

  • Paul Gascoigne
  • Ricky Gervais
  • Jordan

your first instinct might be to sit back, open a fresh packet of biscuits and wait for the nominations to roll in.

You could have a think about that all-important acceptance speech too:

I’d like to thank God, James Patterson, the BATCH Payment System, and all those lovely people who come into our shop, apart from that one guy who always expresses astonishment that we’re still in business, and the lady who spilt coffee on our fiction bay (taking out about 30 titles) and then offered me a fiver for the damage, and all those people that say “I’ve tried everywhere, you’re my last resort”, and whoever it was that dropped an apple core down the back of the Travel Writing section, leading to the great bluebottle infestation of 2015, and also… 

This won’t get you very far however, as in fact you can only be nominated for Independent Bookshop of the Year by one person:  your shop’s biggest fan and advocate, yourself.

Well, as somebody probably once sung: no-one knows you like you.


Black Reading Lady Secret Bookseller logo on red background


So, time to start form-filling. The application process is divided into themes such as

  • Operational Excellence
  • Your Place in the Community (you should try to use the word ‘hub’ quite a lot for this one) and
  • Sustainability

It soon becomes clear that making serious bucks is all-important when it comes to The Nibbies, both for shops and publications. 

The judges require significant evidence of financial success. A personal receipt for luxury hair care products probably won’t suffice here. Drat.

In last year’s ‘Sustainability’ section, it was revealed that the judges would accept ‘indexed comparisons.’

If you’re running a bookshop and you don’t know what an indexed comparison is, you should probably have a long hard think about yourself at this point. 

The talk in my shop is about nothing else, unless of course it’s a Total Materials Cost Variance Tuesday.


Black Reading Lady Secret Bookseller logo on red background


If I ran a prize for Indie Bookshops, I’d want to judge the staff on how they react when the pressure is ramped right up and they find themselves in a combat situation (or “on the shop floor” as it’s more commonly known).

With that in mind, I’m delighted to announce the inaugural


Secret Bookseller Indie Bookshop Award 2017

or ‘Pennies’ as I like to call them (like the Nibbies but cheaper) which I will award to the Indie Bookshop that can best answer the following questions, all based on every-day bookshop scenarios:


1)  An academic textbook is due to be delivered today for a good customer with an urgent need. You open up the package and the publisher/wholesaler has sent you a copy of Shane Richie’s autobiography From Rags to Richie instead. What do you do? Who do you blame?

2)  A local college is hosting a conference on Exiled Transgender Poets of The Caribbean and asks you to provide a stall of relevant books for eight hours, on a Saturday, near Christmas. How do you respond?

3)  It is a quiet news day and your local radio station/newspaper rings you up. The prestigious John Braithwaite Non-Fiction Prize shortlist has been announced and they want an immediate response. You have not seen the list, and when you do see it, you don’t recognise any of the books on it. How do you react? Is there any bluffing involved?

4)  A customer needs appropriate reading guidance for her children. One is a 12 year old with a reading age of 18. The other is an 18 year old with a reading age of 12. What books do you recommend? How can you be sure there is or isn’t sex in a book you haven’t read?

5)  A man knocks over one of your display units, laughingly declares “I’m wrecking the joint”, pays for your cheapest item with a fifty pound note and talks about his ex-wife for fifteen minutes whilst absent-mindedly removing all your Staff Picks labels. What do you say? What do you do? Is this the last time you allow one of your relatives into the shop?


Black Reading Lady Secret Bookseller logo on red background


Anyway, back in the real world of Nibbies, our aspiring Best Bookshop still needs to jump through one or two more application hurdles, as we find ourselves being asked by the judges to provide

‘evidence of imaginative and successful book-buying.’

Now imaginative ‘art’, ‘writing’ or ‘music’ I can envisage, but what the hell is ‘imaginative book-buying’? Is it where you order a book over the phone whilst pirouetting on a chair in a steampunk corset? 

If not, then clearly I don’t possess the imagination to work it out. Even now, my brain is starting to hurt just thinking about it, and wait a minute, can I hear a packet of Fig Rolls calling my name?  

(So yes, you may have guessed. My shop probably isn’t going to win a Nibbie here.)

Once you’ve filled out the form and sent off your application, it’s time to sit and wait.

The regional shortlists are announced first of all. If your shop is on one of these, you will now have a little window of opportunity in which to appear in your local newspaper, accompanied by the usual underwhelming on-line reader comments, the least rude of which will probably be along the lines of:

Don’t go there myself but good luck to them.

This is also the stage where a form recommending your shop is made available on-line by the judges. This can be filled in by friends, family, staff and by yourself using a variety of other e-mail addresses, alter egos and drag queen names loyal customers to give your shop that final push.


Black Reading Lady Secret Bookseller logo on red background


My general tendency is to think that my own bookshop is the best thing since sliced bread, no questions asked. After all, how many other bookshops can claim two condemned appliances in one staff room?

By entering for this prize however, this “theory” is put to the test and you run the serious risk of finding out that, no, in fact, these other bookshops are considered to be better. In fact, these other bookshops located quite near you are considered to be better.

These new likelihoods are something you may have to grapple with yourself, as finally one shop from each region is chosen by the judges to compete for the Independent Bookshop of The Year award at the British Book Awards night at Grosvenor House. Cue drum roll and half-hearted diet and fitness regimes nationwide.

Tickets for The Book Awards cost over 200 pounds per person. You can actually attend The Oscars for less than that, though you probably won’t be appearing in any star-studded group selfies.  When you factor in hair, make-up, plunging gown, travel, accommodation, extra tickets for staff (damn those staff!) and so forth, the whole event is probably going to cost you a pretty penny.

If you think of it as a three-course meal in Mayfair however, it’s actually a bit of a bargain, and that’s before you throw presenter Mariella Frostrup into the mix.


Black Reading Lady Secret Bookseller logo on red background


At last year’s ceremony, the 2016 Independent Bookshop of The Year award went to

Winstone’s Books Sherborne.

No, that’s not me, but it’s a wonderful shop and I’m sure they clapped politely during the announcement of

  • Bookshop Manager Of The Year (usually won by a branch of Waterstones or Blackwell’s: last year was Waterstones’ turn) and
  • Non-Traditional Retailer of The Year, awarded to Urban Outfitters, for services to selling a narrower range of books than Waterstones, just around the corner from them. It is unlikely that any of their unpaid interns were there to accept the award. 

For a flavour of the event, this video of the night by multifaceted bubbly book enthusiast Jen Campbell is well worth a watch.

The atmosphere seems pleasant, to the nth degree and phrases like

coming together of like-minded individuals in a unique celebration of extraordinary talent

are the order of the day.  

Although the trophy itself could easily double up as a murder weapon, more than thirty years of the Awards have taken place so far without any stabbings, either multiple or otherwise.


Black Reading Lady Secret Bookseller logo on red background


Once you’ve won the award, chucked the Literary Agent of The Year nominee out of your hotel room, sobered up and returned to your shop, you basically have one year in which to savour the accolade and display your achievement via bags/website/temporary tattoos etc.

You possibly have less than a year in the case of awards that are given out in May. After one year is up, for your own sake, you need to quietly retire the whole WE WON business as soon as possible.

Nobody in 2017 wants to frequent

  • ‘Hairdresser of the Year 2012’ or
  • ‘Deep Fat Fish Fryer of the Year 2015.’

Have they even changed the oil since then?

The same thing applies to bookshops too. Unlike a Booker prize-winning novel which will always be of some interest over time, a Retail Award lasts about as long as that ill-advised relationship I had with the “auteur and jazz poet.”  

(That’s one person, in case anyone is interested.)

Any award displayed in a shop after the year cut-off point is a bit like a Vanilla Ice gold disc. No-one is denying you have it exactly, but it’s getting less relevant by the day and increasingly unlikely to happen again.

I’ve seen people try to get round this by inserting the words ‘award-winning’ in front of their bookshop name, but you’re not fooling anyone. I’m sorry, but that award is past its brag-by date.

And this is one of the problems with awards as I see it. Once you’ve won once, you’ll soon find you want to win again to prove that as a shop, you’ve still got it, but now you’re trapped in a never-ending Trophy Hunting Loop from which there is no escape. Next thing you know, you’ve failed to even make the shortlist for an Award which you once won. Oh dear.

I hope this is a crumb of comfort to all those Indie Bookshops that haven’t won or even entered for any awards. Take it from me: you don’t need it.

That appreciative customer comment is worth a hundred trophies, respected judges or gala events.



2 comments on “Nibbies for Dummies”

  1. The fact that you can nominate yourself for this has always made me smile – moreso with the ‘young bookseller of the year’ award. But at least it shows confidence!

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