Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Weird and Whacky World of Book Selling

Stuart Kelly, the literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, and acclaimed author, has a very interesting column in today's SOS. It concerns the practice of how books at Waterstone’s are deemed to be the 'books of the year'. The publishers pay for the privilege - and there were you thinking that those nice people who work at Waterstone’s, and all the other major book chains because they all do exactly the same, sat down and read the books and decided which were best.

As Stuart says, "Waterstone's were asking publishers to pay in order to be a Book of the Year come Christmas. For the record, it's £7,000 per title to be in the catalogue; £25,000 for the 45 titles prominently displayed and £45,000 to "maximise the potential of the [six] biggest titles". When we all troop into the shops and see these books on their racks we also notice that they cost a lot less than most of the titles because in the weird and whacky world of publishing the irresistible offer of Waterstone’s to charge said amounts is known as 'marketing'. The fact that on top of this charge for 'prominent display' the publishers, most likely, discount the books they sell to Waterstone’s to an even greater extent than they already do enables them to sell the book at an even higher discounted price than normal.

What other industry discounts its biggest selling products to the largest extent and then complains about its profit margins?

When I worked in the airline business no one would ever have predicted that travel agents, and in particular 'bucket shops' - those people who sold heavily discounted tickets - would cease to hold the sway that they once did. The internet has revolutionised air travel and it will do likewise with publishing and book selling - way beyond what we've experienced hitherto with Amazon and the like. There’s a real need for publishers, in general, to better understand marketing than they do. There's also the question of how will high street major book sellers continue to operate such large stores. In Edinburgh there is a Waterstone’s on Princes's Street and another on George Street, roughly 500 yards apart. They are both enormous shops; can they both be making money? I suspect that because the George Street store was formerly Hammicks that their lease arrangements make it just about acceptable to keep both going. Sometime soon the lease will be up for renewal at one or other of the shops and one will close. Add to this the fact that Waterstone’s is owned by HMV, and the business of selling music in the high street is hardly booming, and you have a company who must be feeling the squeeze.


r morris said...

The same thing happens over here. Publishers of books and magazines pay an extra fee to have their books put on certain display racks in the store. The more promotion a publisher pumps into a book, the more the book sells. I am unsure if the biggies here in the States actually get paid to name books 'Book of the Year', but if they do, then that's terrible and should make any book-lover cynical and depressed.

Heather Yaxley said...

I don't have an issue regarding promotions or prominent display of books as that is standard retail practice (happens in supermarkets all the time as the power ratio favours the retailer rather than the producer currently).

What does bother me is the credibility of so called recommendations. Waterstone as a brand was built on its knowledge of books, which has been sold easily with this approach.

Their reputation is in danger once people realise that the recommendations count for nothing and they could be buying a real dud of a book, let alone giving it as a present.

More power to credible online reviews by real people however...