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.