Waterstone's is about to take over Ottakars in a deal which is bound to see the closure of a number of 'doubled up' stores in market towns throughout Britain. Despite the fact that the deal puts Waterstone's in a highly dominant market position the competition authorities have waved the deal through. There are now six main players in the bookselling market - Waterstone's, W H Smith, Borders/Books etc, Amazon, the supermarkets and Independent booksellers. The common thread through the first five is the huge level of discount they demand from suppliers, which is then passed on to the consumer. So all's well then. Well, not quite.
The only way publishers can give this discount is to concentrate their efforts on bestsellers and to put all their marketing resources behind comparatively few books. The publishing sector has reflected its bookselling counterpart and seen many smaller publishing houses gobbled up by the bigger ones, as they struggle to compete. In turn this has meant fewer books being publishing and a contraction in range. So although the consumer wins on cover price, it loses out on choice. Some independent booksellers don't even bother to sell Harry Potter books because Tesco is selling it more cheaply than the bookseller can buy it from the publisher. It's not uncommon to see small independent booksellers piling up their supermarket trollies down at Asda, looking slightly sheepish as they do so. This is because the publisher gives Asda a 60-65% discount, while the small bookseller will get 40% if he's lucky. And on top of that Asda is likely to sell the book as a loss leader.
Amazon offers a standard 30-40% discount on most non-academic titles, so it has been able to establish a dominant market position in online bookselling. It has been so successful that 80% of people who buy anything online, buy from Amazon at some point. So there's the background - now for the prediction. I foresee that within ten years the independent bookshop will have disappeared from our town centres, all bar a few retired individuals who have got money to throw down the drain. Even second hand bookshops are disappearing at a fair old rate, as most people now buy their used books through Abebooks. There's still nothing like rooting round a second hand bookstore and finding that book you've been looking for for years, but the internet has made it so much easier.
The joy of wandering round Waterstone's used to be that each one was different - the local manager was able to decide on buying. Now everything is decided by the centre and the local managers have little power to go their own way. Each store looks at the same and stocks the same books. And as we have read in the weekend press, to get a book displayed in a prominent position throughout their chain can cost a publisher upwards of £20,000. So the bestseller charts are entirely skewed by money changing hands between publisher and bookseller. W H Smith do the same. It is rare indeed for a book to break through that market barrier on its own merits. It can happen - East Shoots and Leaves by Lynn truss is the exception that proves the rule. Profile Books, Truss's publisher, would never have been able to fund a marketing campaign which a bestseller would normally require. But as I say, it's a great rarity for this to happen.
So will the consumer win in the long run? If you're a buyer of trade fiction, sports books or general literature then probably. Prices will remain low and the contraction in range won't affect you. But if you're into more esoteric, specialist books expect to find your choice diminished and the price to rise. And if you're someone who just likes to browse, you're likely to find your browsing range restricted to a choice of Waterstone's, Borders or W H Smith. A truly terrifying thought.