Thursday, July 24, 2008

United we stand...

Yesterday's BBC News website had an interesting piece on a buying group for independent bookshops. Here's the link, but if you don't want to read the whole article, the gist of it is that a company called Leading Edge is giving independent bookshops a chance to buy their stock on terms that are comparable to those enjoyed by the chains.

The terms that publishers give to retailers are shrouded in mystery, but like any relationship between a supplier and client, the more you buy the higher the discount. Independent booksellers usually get anything between 35 - 40% discount on the retail price, depending on the supplier. Waterstone's and Borders get around 48% on normal stock items, with an extra 10% thrown in if a title is part of a promotion.

Publishers are particularly cagey about the terms they give to Amazon, British Bookshops and Tesco, but it wouldn't be unrealistic to suggest a figure in the region around 65 - 70% discount on the cover price. In the case of a £19.99 hardback, this means that Amazon can sell the book for half price and still make a few quid, whereas the independent bookshop would make a loss of several pounds if they tried to compete.

I don't know how aware the general public are aware of the supply chain. In my experience, a lot of customers felt that we were ripping them off if we sold books at full price. A manager I used to know was told by a haughty customer that a book cost £3 less on Amazon. She replied 'Fine, buy it from Amazon, but don't complain in five years time when there are no bookshops left.' Chastened, he bought the book from her.

I found life as a bookseller tough enough working for a chain. I certainly wouldn't fancy being an independent these days unless, like many of the most successful 'indies', I was in a town full of posh people who weren't bothered about saving money.

Fortunately, independent booksellers are now able to fight back as members of a buying group which orders new titles from publishers in bulk, securing preferential trade terms. This gives an independent bookshop greater flexibility over pricing and makes the playing field a little more level (cliche no.572).

Since I left Waterstone's I have discovered how many people hate the chains (I think they were too kind to tell me before) but resist paying full price in an independent bookseller, no matter how much they like them. Let's hope that the renaissance of the independents will get a new boost from initiatives like the Leading Edge's.


The Poet Laura-eate said...

I know a reasonable amount about this actually (being involved in a writer's group and part of a local anthology about to come out trying to get bookshop-syndicated etc), but I think you are perfectly right that not many people are aware of all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of book-selling and I thank goodness for your blog making more people aware. Indeed I'm still finding out stuff that horrifies me via Fiction Bitch's blog etc.

By the by, you've just won an award for services to books @ mine (see The Honours List)


David said...

Our man P. Henderson works for Leading Edge.

Jim Murdoch said...

I am not sure that the death of the bookshop is something I personally would cry over. That's a thing thirty years ago I could never imagine saying but the simple truth is that I never visit bookshops any more. The nearest one to me is an hour bus ride away in the centre of Glasgow. It's too much time and trouble to visit one when I can buy online. I use Amazon constantly - to browse but I very rarely buy from them. To be honest I very rarely buy new books at all except for pressies.

Ms Baroque said...

Ah, but Jim, just because you don't go to them doesn't mean you wouldn't be sad to hear the last one had closed... like the last button-hook salesman, the last celluloid collar manufacturer, the last coachmaker.

I hope this in initiative works, Steerforth. Like Right-to-Buy before it, the end of the Net Book Agreement has exacerbated the very bumps on the "playing field" that it was supposed to level out.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, Ms Baroque, now you're looking into my soft centre. That's not fair. When I was young my mum used to get her fruit and veg from a little man who came round the streets with a horse and cart just like the horse and cart in Steptoe and Son. One day he stopped coming. I suppose the horse must've died. Several years later I saw the man, older but still essentially the same, and it was his job to lock up the kids swings at night. He was such a sad sight, as if he'd shambled out of a Beckett play. To this day I've never forgotten him. He looked so incomplete, a man without a horse. But a bookshop is not a person. Now, if it was the last bookseller in some tiny, rundown shop down an old lane after the Kindle has taken over the world … yeah, then I might feel a twinge.