Bookselling is dominated by the big chains. On the UK high street, Waterstones dominates; online, Amazon is king in sales of both new and second-hand books following its 2008 acquisition of Abe Books, the brilliant second-hand bookselling website which lists sellers from all over the world.
Because of their huge buying power, not only do the big chains command higher discounts from publishers than are available to the smaller, independent booksellsers: they also directly influence publishers’ decisions. If buyers for the chains don’t like book covers, the covers will be redesigned; if they don’t like blurbs, they’ll be rewritten; and if, ultimately, they don’t like certain writers, then those writers are unlikely to be commissioned again.
Bookselling chains don’t make their income purely from book sales: they also get paid to run promotions. Consider all those books on the three-for-two tables: each one is there because their publishers have paid for their inclusion. And this subsidiary source of income doesn’t stop there: a few years ago there was an outcry when the public discovered that positions on Waterstones’ “bestsellers” chart were all bought and paid for by the publishers concerned. Since then, little has changed: the chart is still money-driven but at least the fuss has died down now. I’d love to know what sort of proportion of the chains’ income is provided directly from bookselling, and indirectly from paid-for promotions, but I don’t suppose they’ll volunteer the information.
There’s a cost for all this, of course: chain bookstores all seem to offer the same chart-led stock, and don’t often carry the quirkier, more risky books: the self-published titles with the limited markets; the poetry, small-press titles or anthologies. Which is, for me, where the real gold lies. So next time you visit an independent bookseller and wonder why it doesn’t offer cut-price books, or run many promotions, don’t think harshly of it. Have a good poke around and discover those odd little books that you won’t find anywhere else. Buy a big bag full of them, and be grateful the shop is still open. Because the independent bookshop is at risk, and needs our full support.