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James Hanna - The Emperor has no Clothes
James Hanna's disappearance from Atherstone in 2006 brought to an end Book Town International's attempts to establish franchise-style Book Towns in Blaenavon and Atherstone. I tried to dispassionately report these events as they unfolded in the Bookshops News pages from 2003 - 2006.
If you are interested in the detail, that's where you should look. However, many of the links to content on other websites are now redundant, making the story difficult to follow. So what follows is an overview, written with the benefit of my notes and hindsight.
When I first met James Hanna in Blaenavon two days after the Book Town's opening, I confess I was impressed by his drive and seemingly endless optimism. On leaving his shop I asked my wife and business partner (who had been observing our exchange) what she made of him: "snake oil salesman", was her simple reply.
At the time I was a bit surprised by her response but it didn't take very long for anyone with any experience of buying and selling secondhand books to realise that Hanna's sales pitch didn't make sense.
He made growth forecasts and claimed internet sales figures which could only have been true in his head, and resisted all attempts to question him about them. Avoiding questions was of course vital because his Book Town International "package" was aimed at those with little or no knowledge of the trade.
However, Blaenavon Book Town had been launched on March 10, 2003, in what could only be described as a blaze of publicity. But by August, Mark Bennett, one of the novice bookshop owners, was already complaining about lack of progress.
Development proved to be painfully slow - despite Hanna's continuing reassurances - and by the following June, Maeve Kennedy was reporting "trench warfare" in her regular Guardian column. In little over a year Hanna's business model had unravelled amidst allegations of bad faith and shady business practice, some made very publicly.
Against this background, the last thing anyone in the book trade expected was the announcement of another Hanna-run Book Town in January 2005. It soon became clear that the Atherstone model would differ only in the amount of cash charged for each module of the scheme.
Again, Hanna's pitch was characterised by inflated expectations, an absence of hard facts, and an unshakeable belief that he could turn complete novices into successful booksellers overnight.
Local booksellers attending early meetings were extremely concerned about some of the statements made, but as always, any unfavourable comment was brushed aside as "negativity. A local website, Atherstone-online, banned "negative" comments about the fledgling Book Town, and even went as far as removing posts deemed by the administrator to be inappropriate.
Hanna abandoned Blaenavon at the end of February 2006 and effectively gave up on Atherstone in May, less than a year after its launch - probably when it became clear that he would receive no more development funding.
With only two bookshops established in the town, his franchise-style scheme can have generated very little income and Book Town International was officially dissolved on September 5th. This process takes months but was surprisingly completed just a few days after he had emailed one of the remaining bookshops to tell them he was back in the USA.
Book Town International's collapse surprised no one except a few Hanna apologists, who still believed that his failure was everyone else's fault. The truth of course was that Hanna's scheme to sell packages costing 21K to novice booksellers was deeply flawed as a concept, and would have lasted about 5 minutes in The Dragons Den.
Hanna maintained that he had been a successful bookseller in the USA for thirty years - but nobody there had any recollection of him. He also claimed Richard Booth was his business partner and (it was implied) would be supplying the books - although when I asked, Booth categorically denied this.
So there was no evidence that Hanna had a track record in selling books, let alone any other expertise which might have made his scheme plausible. But extraordinarily, none of his backers thought to question him about any of this.
What seems to have mesmerised policy makers in both towns was Hanna's undoubted charisma and flair with the press. Unfortunately, his unshakeable confidence and wild promises - which did so much to endear him to both the local media and some within the local authorities - was no substitute for a business plan that would stand detailed scrutiny.
No one knows how much money was lost by all the individual investors in Hanna's schemes - which were given credibility by the public endorsement of both local authorities. However, one investor claimed to have lost their life savings and there were a number of allegations of fraud involving substantial amounts of money.
Evidence regarding allegations of fraud in Blaenavon made against Hanna was presented to the Crown Prosecution Service in 2006 but the CPS decided to take no further action.
In retrospect one has to wonder why anyone would have THOUGHT such a scheme would work. However, many people HOPED it would - and that's why it took so long for those of us who cared to demonstrate that the Emperor had no clothes.
Blaenafon - The Book Town Experiment Fails 17.03.06
Blaenafon Booktown - Now We Are (Nearly)Two 13.05.05
Blaenafon Revisited 01.11.03 & 26.10.04
Blaenafon Booktown - A Book Buyer's View 04.07.03
Blaenavon articles by Maev Kennedy in the Guardian:
02.06.2004: Chapter eleven: May concern
23.03.2004: Chapter nine: Winter of our discontent
02.03.2004:Chapter eight: From fetes to the fates
31.12.2003: Chapter seven: 'A couple of bob for Christmas'
22.12.2003:Chapter six: Nothing going on but the rent
04.11.2003: Chapter five: Local poet scores on first try
13.10.2003:Chapter four: Grishams Grishams everywhere
02.09.2003: Chapter three: Blood, sweat and tears
30.07.2003: Chapter two: 'We can't have too many witches'
30.06.2003: Chapter one: First day
28.06.2003: Books open new chapter for Plywood City
10.03.2003:Books could help town to turn over a new leaf
BBC News Bookish Blaenavon opens new chapter
International Organisation of Book Towns booktown.net