Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Bookselling: Chains And Independents

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.

13 comments:

TOM J VOWLER said...

An independent publisher visited our creative writing group a few years ago, told us all about the unscrupulous corporate machinations that govern chain book-selling. This included how one independent bought Harry Potter from Tesco in baulk rather than the publisher, as it was cheaper. I never buy from the big chains, preferring Amazon, but as you say, they give small publishes a terrible deal. One of my greatest pleasures was visiting our little independent up the road, browsing through its myriad of intriguing shelves. It's now a Subway sandwich bar.

Jane Smith said...

Tom, but isn't Amazon one of those big chains?

Lord. Imagine losing a good bookshop in order for a branch of Subway to open in its place. The thought makes me shudder almost as much as the food does!

Anna Russell said...

I had no idea the big chains' practices were so nefarious. It leaves you torn as a writer, because the artistic part of you wants nothing to do with such things, but the part of you trying to make a living realises that being a part of it is likely the only way you'll ever get to be the rare writer who makes a name for themselves.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh about the whole thing, but it seems to me that there should be laws in place to stop books being marketed as "Top 10" books (which I, along with many others always took to mean the top 10 bestsellers) when in actual fact they're not at all.

I have to travel nearly an hour to my nearest independent bookshop. But oh, it's worth it. Shelves upon shelves of gorgoeous little treats just waiting to be discovered and owners who are just as passionate about books as their customers are. If it ever got turned into a Subway, I don't know what I'd do. That's such a sad story.

Hugs
Anna xxx

KAREN said...

I spurn our local Waterstone's since it put an independent bookshop out of business that had been in the town for 25 years. Another little independent has opened since (very daring!) and I've noticed it gets a lot more business now than the big W. Shame customers didn't stay loyal to the other one in the first place though. I swear they were swayed by the leather armchairs and a dedicated 'kiddies corner.' Tut.

Sally Zigmond said...

Although I am a huge fan of good indie bookshops I must speak up for Waterstone's. Their practises are not 'nefarious' (which implies wickedness and criminality) although some might say they are immoral or bullies. The way they operate--demanding and getting mega-discounts from publishers--is exactly the way Tesco and Sainsbury's work.

Just because the corporate structure (they are owned by HMV) is all to do with shifting stock and making big profits, their staff are people who love books and if they don't seem to want to chat all day about the merits of the latest Booker shortlist that's because they ae supposed to be either at the till taking the money or putting books on shelves. And yes, you've guessed it, I used to be a Waterstone's employee...

emmadarwin said...

I've never worked for Waterstones, but I'd agree that they're only playing by the same rules as the supermarkets, because they have to. They also offer 10% discount to members of the Society of Authors. And indies aren't always small and dustily charming: Foyles is an independent, offers 15% discount to members of the SofA, and you can buy from them online. Online, I'd also recommend The Book Depository for terrific prices. They buy firm from publishers, too, which is hugely helpful to publishers' cashflow.

My indie bookshop, too, now offers 10% discount for members, mind you...

Anna Russell said...

@ Sally: I chose the word nefarious because it's my view that giving the impression your Top 10 list is made up of the Top 10 most popular books, rather than the Top 10 most paid for by publishers books encourages people to spend money on something believing it to be because so many others have done the same. If it's not outright lying to get people to part with their money, it's pretty close, and to my mind that *is* criminal behaviour.
Don't even get me started on the big supermarket chains!

Obviously, you are a book lover and have been fortunate enough to work with other book lovers, but I have rarely found this to be the case in large book chain stores. Not because the staff don't chat about literature with me - I appreciate they're very busy and can't do that - but because they seem so genuinely uninterested in books.

I stand by my use of "nefarious" although I can see why others may disagree.

I just wish there was someone like you working in my local Waterstones!

Hugs
Anna xxx

HelenMHunt said...

We have a very good independent bookshop quite close to us which does new and secondhand. I've got some fantastic things there including a small pamphlet telling one woman's story of her experiences in WWII. No way I would have got that in Waterstones. However, I've also spent many happy hours browsing in Waterstones and similar. In an ideal world there's room for both - but obviously the concern is that the big chains (and supermarkets) will squeeze the little shops out. That would be a tragedy.

The Writer said...

Damn my reply to this ended up so long, I decided just to blog about it lol. I want to thank you for posting this blog, I think it's an important issue, especially in this time of recession. It's great to see that this blog has sparked a bit of lively debate, it's great to see that people are passionate about it.

Jane Smith said...

I love Waterstones: I spend hours at a time in my local branches, and can only be prised out of it by the lure of a bucketful of latte from Starbucks, which is directly opposite it. I wouldn't want to see Waterstones disappear from the high street; it does a wonderful job of popularising books and reading. And some branches do stock all sorts of brilliant books (I saw a picture of a brilliant selection of short story anthologies at the Brightron branch a couple of days ago--I'll see if I can find a link). But I do miss independent shops, and when I find a good one I almost move in....

Jane Smith said...

Here's a link to Tania Hershman's blog where I saw the photo of the display of anthologies at Waterstones in Brighton:

http://titaniawrites.blogspot.com/2009/01/on-blogs-lemons-lemonade-and-other.html

Isn't that good?

Dave said...

I'm a Waterstone's fan. They certainly seem to have more autonomy than other chains ( WH Smith, for example), and consequently can be relied on for a mix of the commercial and the obscure.

Vanessa said...

As an indie bookseller I have no problem with people shopping on-line or at the big chains. I don't expect people to pay more for a book from me because they feel all warm and fuzzy about us being an independent - that feels kind of patronising.

What I do want is for people to realise that we have a more diverse range than the big chains, that a book that gets championed by us is championed because we love it and not because we're being paid to love it more than other books, and that it's no good saying how lovely it is to have us in the neighbourhood and then never setting foot in the shop.

And we give Society of Authors a 20% discount. And we'll order absolutely anything in for them. And even offer them a cuppa if they're lucky.