Every year in publishing tends to be somewhat squally, but 2011 is shaping up into something of a hurricane.
In the UK we are witnessing what appears to be the irreversible death of the high street bookshop, with Waterstone’s closing stores and British Bookshops ready to collapse. I won’t miss the latter chain, incidentally, with its paltry range and ruinous discounts, but Waterstone’s would be a terrible loss. Already they’re planning to cut initial orders by 20%. It’s not inconceivable that one day we’ll be left with WH Smith as the only chain of any size; that’s if they can survive being squeezed by Amazon and the supermarkets.
I’m a strong supporter of independent bookshops but their locations are a matter of chance and choice. If there was an independent bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, where I live, I would buy all my books there, but there isn’t so I can’t. In any case, I believe we also need chains, because they provide a nationwide network of outlets enabling publishers to mount effective marketing and distribution campaigns across the whole country. Without them the book-buying public will have much less access to the widest possible range. Yes I know you can theoretically buy any book that’s in print on Amazon, but you can’t replicate online the browsing experience which exposes you to diversity and reveals to you books you’d otherwise never come across.
What we could do without, however, is the insane discounting which saw £600 million knocked off the retail value of UK book sales in 2010, £14.5 million down to Jamie Oliver alone. Everyone likes a bargain, of course, but not as the norm and not where a book priced at £26 is sold in supermarkets at £8.99. It’s impossible not to agree with the consultant who called this an ‘unsustainable model’ or with the other analyst who says ‘the worth of books has been devalued’. In other words, the damage has been done.
Meanwhile, the US experience demonstrates that the digital revolution really might be underway, as Amazon’s sales of e-books last year surpassed those of paperbacks. If the UK is going to follow down this dramatic new path then publishers really have to get their pricing right. I won’t repeat what I said about that here last year, but merely point out the interesting development that the Office of Fair Trading is to investigate whether the agency pricing model breaches competition law. Surely it would be better if publishers could pre-empt this and take a more realistic approach now rather than risk having their whole e-book model torn down at the very time when e-books might be taking off.
Such an outcome could be particularly damaging for UK publishing if, as the debates at Digital Book World last week suggest, US publishers are squaring up for a fight over territories. For years there has been friction – I even remember one New York publisher angrily denouncing the rights retained by a UK publisher as being unfair and unjustifiable, even to the point of insisting that the Commonwealth didn’t exist. What we can’t afford is to let the UK digital sales model collapse at the very time the US industry is seeking to make inroads into our traditional markets.
So, with chains in decline, discounts out of control, e-books on the rise, potential anti-competition practices and a predatory US industry breathing down our necks, 2011 could be interesting to say the least. How ironic that this year of multiple crises should be the year when the BBC decides to crank up its on air coverage of books to unprecedented levels. We should applaud their plans, but it will take more than the BBC to save our industry.