Sam Draper has the job of absolute dreams for bookworms. He spends his time choosing books for people, matching their personalities with books
The idea of “The Bookman” was born at the same time as Sam’s youngest daughter, now five. An English teacher for 17 years, before that a journalist with the BBC and Sky, Sam took parental leave from his North London secondary school to be at home with his new baby.
“I was thinking, what I can I do to keep my brain ticking over, to maybe bring in some money,” explains Sam. “A glass of red wine later and I suddenly had it. I’m good at picking books for people and I love books, it’s why I became an English teacher, it’s why I was a journalist. Books have driven everything I’ve done—that’s me, it’s books.”
He didn’t want to follow the standard book subscription model where everybody who signs up receives the same collection of books and he didn’t want to add to the coffers of the online retail giants. Instead, he buys his books from independent booksellers and subscribers receive books that are selected just for them, in three-, six- or 12-month bundles.
"I’m good at picking books for people and I love books, it’s why I became an English teacher, it’s why I was a journalist. Books have driven everything I’ve done—that’s me, it’s books."
“The Bookman is all about sitting down with you and finding out what you like. It’s not about what I like or what I think you should read. It’s a personalised service. I’m a self-confessed bad businessman but I’m very good at picking books.”
The Royal Family would presumably agree with him—members of the Royal Household rank among his readers and his customer base stretches across the UK, Europe, Canada and the US, ranging in age from four to 95.
“I got an enquiry on my website from the email address royal.uk and immediately thought, this is a fake. But I replied out of courtesy and now, although I can’t say too much about it, there are people within the Royal Household who read books I’ve chosen for them.”
Although it hasn’t involved any trips to Buckingham Palace just yet. Sam’s consultation service is offered over the phone, by Zoom or through an email questionnaire so the readers can maintain their anonymity if they choose.
"Sam’s consultation service is offered over the phone, by Zoom or through an email questionnaire so the readers can maintain their anonymity if they choose."
During the pandemic, he offered free books to over-seventies who were shielding at home and couldn’t go out—shelf isolation as he calls it.
“When we had the first lockdown in March, I wanted to do something that might make people feel better and a bit happier. I decided to give out ten Bookman bundles, 30 books in total.”
He put the call out on social media for people who were isolating and might like to receive a book.
“Within an hour, I had so many replies back—“Yes, my gran would love this or my auntie or my friend down the road”. So I did the consultations, spoke to some wonderful people and sent out the books. Then I thought, well, I can do another ten bundles, and then I did another and another, and by the end of that first lockdown, I’d given out 350 books. I got a lot back from it myself—lots of grateful cards and letters from extremely lovely people who were on their own and appreciated the company of a book.”
Which brings us to the question—just how do you choose a book for somebody else?
“There are two ways people give books. One is a personal thing—“I loved this, you must read it”. That’s common but those books can become quickly over-hyped and put the recipient under pressure. The other way is knowing what the person is interested in and buying accordingly.
“For me, I’m meeting strangers, so I need to get to know the person a bit. I study them and find out what authors they’ve read—so I can avoid those—and what other books they might be interested in. It’s kind of like an algorithm in my head that probably wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, but I go with my gut.”
But what if they don’t like the books?
"His advice to anyone buying books as gifts is simple. Talk to your local independent booksellers and take their advice. Or do your research. Ask the recipient what words tempt them to pick up a book."
“The worst thing that happens is that they’ve read the book before and usually in that case, they say, ‘I absolutely loved it but I’ve already read it’. I’ve never had somebody who didn’t like the books they received but I did have a few customers who tried the process, and it wasn’t for them. When that happens, I just give the money back. I don’t want to torture people if they’re not getting any joy from it.”
His advice to anyone buying books as gifts is simple. Talk to your local independent booksellers and take their advice. Or do your research. Ask the recipient what words tempt them to pick up a book.
“It might be a specific thing, or it might be a place,” says Sam. “My mother-in-law loves anything slightly sad set in Ireland because that’s her heritage. So, if I’m playing safe, I pick her a sad book about somewhere in Ireland—from Angela's Ashes onwards.”
His own favourite books are On The Road by Jack Kerouac, the book he read growing up in Dorset that inspired him to spend his gap year travelling on Greyhound buses across America. He returned to study American Literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is another favourite—“both the book and the film, each so very different, which triggered a realisation in me that a story could be told in different ways”.
And finally, what he describes as a “very strange book” called House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, which “I struggled through, it was a torture to read but it followed me for months afterwards and in fact it's still there in the back of my head, a creepy book that follows me around”.
Lately he’s turned his hand to writing, contributing to a book on fatherhood called DAD, 20 stories from fathers' perspectives. “It covers everything from being a widowed dad to raising a mixed-race child to my own experience of shared parental leave.”
He’s also co-writing a book with a friend on how to deal with difficulties, due for publication next year.
“I haven't got to the point where I'm writing in a genre that I read, I'm still writing about my current experiences—difficulties and fatherhood,” he laughs.
You get the feeling that he won’t ever stop being The Bookman, picking out books for strangers, books he hopes they will love, books driven by his own passion for reading and sharing stories.
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