by Rosemary Goring

3 for 2: Bookselling Now

November 2, 2009 | by Rosemary Goring

IN THE EARLY 1980s, George Street in Edinburgh was prosperous but dull. Between the hours of nine and five it was inhabited by pinstripes, housewives, and the occasional dog-collared minister, shuttling between offices and shops and the Church of Scot-land’s headquarters at No 121. Come early evening the place was deserted, left to a handful of night-owls whose footsteps struck an eerily loud note in the almost silent night. This, of course, was long before it became host to a succession of chrome bars, clubs and restaurants, to 48-hour hen-nights and the binge drinking affrays that now leave its pavements daubed as if an emetic Jackson Pollock had passed by.

In the douce days of 1985, however, George Street witnessed a minor revolution, the first salvo in what was to become a gun-blazing war. It looked insignificant at the time – it was only another shop after all – but it was to usher in an entirely new and far from benign era in the commercial world of books.

The first Scottish branch of Waterstones booksellers, at the west end of George Street, was a maroon-carpeted heaven. All the principles that Tim Waterstone hoped to enshrine in his business were here: an intelligent and informed staff; excellent literary stock, late opening hours, and a relaxed attitude previously unheard of in a traditionally dusty, tweedy domain. To the refrain of Stan Getz and Elgar, readers could browse long after all other shops had closed. Suddenly George Street was kept awake until nine in the evening as a procession of readers ambled in and out of Waterstones’ inviting doors. Some nights they wove rather than walked their way home, after enjoying the free wine that went with their popular author readings. And you weren’t talking B-list writers. Waterstones were first to cash in on fame, bringing some of the biggest around, such as Gore Vidal, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, to its northern outpost. A mile or two away, and a century or so culturally, James Thin’s venerable bookshop shivered at the first chill wind of serious competition.

Only a few had noticed that the world of bookselling had taken an irrevocable and worrying turn more than half a century earlier. When, in 1935, Penguin first published its ground-breaking series of paperbacks for sixpence, the price of a packet of cigarettes, the prophetic George Orwell wrote that they were such good value “that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them. It is of course a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way about. If you have, for instance, five shillings to spend and the normal price of a book is half-a-crown, you are quite likely to spend your whole five shillings on two books. But if books are sixpence each you are not going to buy ten of them, because you don’t want as many as ten…” He concluded drily: “the cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books.”

For those not gifted with Orwell’s acuity – some would say second sight – the arrival of affordable books was a boon: those who could previously only borrow from libraries were suddenly put within reach of a library they could own, and bookshops were no longer the territory only of the better-off and the highly educated. With a greater democracy of bookselling, surely there would follow a greater diversity of publishing. From this perspective, everybody was a winner.

For the first few decades after the paperback revolution, all this seemed to be coming true. By the time Waterstones was spreading its branches across Britain, Orwell’s prediction looked laughable. The old independent bookshops continued to do a good business, pepping up their displays and putting on occasional author events to compete with their glizzier rivals. Meanwhile Waterstones not only began to attract a new and younger clientele but also began to seduce readers away from the older established shops, turning diehard account holders with the likes of James Thin and John Smith into a more promiscuous, and furtive, breed. Books had become attractive, fashionable and even a little glamorous, no longer the domain of the grizzled or studious or ancient. As if to emphasis the new climate of literary well-being, Waterstones’ expansion went hand in hand with the encouraging rise of publishers such as Bloomsbury and Harvill, who specialised in interesting, unpredictable books that reflected the younger and more adventurous profile of new bookshop browsers.

My own period behind the bookshop till at Waterstones in these halcyon days was brief – a mere eleven weeks on either side of Christmas – but a friend whom I worked alongside and who is still in the business believes that that era represented the “high water mark” of British bookselling. Yet as a commercial enterprise Tim Waterstone’s company was not the success its seductive and forward-thinking image led one to expect. Expanding too quickly, he overreached himself, and sold out with chagrin to W H Smith, the darling of train travellers and those more interested in flowery notepaper than serious books. But they too failed to make it work, and in turn sold the chain to its current owners, HMV.

By the time the original enlightened Water-stones formula had proved itself financially flawed, a new climate of bookselling was sweeping the country. Other major chains were now leading the charge, most notably Borders, who brought from over the ocean a slick supermarket image to its shops and replaced library shelves with floodlit aisles where books were as lovingly and imaginatively piled as if they were six-packs of beer. Where are the trolleys?, asked those of us who disliked the treatment of books as “product”. Whatever chain you went into, windows displayed the same books, the front tables were piled with all-too familiar faces, and it became increasingly difficult to find the backlist of all but a few authors, that offered anything older than a couple of years. Gradually going into a bookshop became a predictable and depressingly bland experience, whether you were in Greenwich or Glasgow.

Twenty years on from the opening of the first Scottish branch of Waterstones the landscape of bookselling is almost unrecognisable. Most obvious and grievous is the demise of the independent shops, be it James Thin or John Smith or Bauermeister. Chains have gobbled up the prime sites, often only with the intention of killing a space another bookshop might have invaded. Thus secondary sites for smaller shops are lost, and you have the unappealing sight of a store eyeballing a fellow branch sitting only a few feet away.

The plethora of chain-stores would be less worrying if they were not so uniform, and if they stocked a range of books that reflects the diversity of what’s being published. Some chains, of course, are more uniform than others, Waterstones particularly so, as it dances to strict orders and policies from its HQ, which appears to treat books the way their owners treat CDs. Their system of central ordering means that the same stock is rolled out across Britain, from Ilfracombe to Inverness, with little adaptation for local interests or tastes. Ottakars, meanwhile, gives branch managers greater leeway to impose their own style, allowing a touch of individuality noticeable in the range of local authors and local events they offer. Yet even they are constrained to a considerable degree by head office’s edicts and the financial imperatives of an increasingly cut-throat industry.

Chains are not, however, the only culprit in the increasing homogenisation – some call it McBookshopping – of the bookselling world.

Probably the biggest threat to diversity came with the demise in 1995 of the Net Book Agreement, which fixed a standard price for each title. The advent of variable pricing struck a blow to the heart of smaller businesses who could not offer the same discounts as larger competitors. It has also led to one of the most ridiculous anomalies of modern bookselling: when a book is first published, instead of going into shops at the highest price possible as would, say, a CD or DVD, it is immediately discounted.

How many shops sold the last J K Rowling novel at full price? The crazy discounts offered for Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, at a time when it would have sprinted out of shops at double the recommended price, confirmed the discounting system as, in the words of one exasperated Scottish publisher, “the economics of madness”.

Such insanity is heightened by the increasing pressure on high street bookshops from supermarkets, whose size has allowed them to cut deeper and deeper into the bestseller market. Thus conventional bookshops find themselves forced into ever more punitive price cutting, the worst symptom of which is almost universal “three for two” promotions.

Three for two sounds like a good idea for all involved, and in its early days, before the conditions booksellers imposed on publishers became so fierce, it probably was. When first rolled out, three-for-two allowed a publisher to promote a little-known author or a less well-known title alongside bigger names, thus offsetting the reduction in the author’s royalties against his or her enhanced profile and coaxing readers into trying books they might otherwise have overlooked. It was as part of a three-for-two offer, for instance, that Alexander McCall Smith’s early novels first came to a wider audience.

But behind the impression of being offered an irresistible bargain that three-for-two deals give readers lies a darker reality that has more in common with the ethos of the sweatshop than with a gentlemanly trade. The pressure booksellers put on publishers to drop their price on books included in their promotions is intense. Margins of profit for publishers involved in three-for-twos, or other types of price promotions, are so low that all they are effectively achieving is a short-term allocation of promotional space. Only the largest publishers can afford to absorb such unprofitable ventures, leading to a marketplace where, increasingly, business is confined to a the dialogue between conglomerates and book chains, with smaller publishers effectively rendered mute and helpless.

As Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors puts it, “in an amiable – or fairly amiable way – there’s a battle of the big guns between major booksellers and publishers”. To be part of other chain-store promotions, such as the Summer or Christmas reading promotions chains so love to run, publishers have to pay several hundred pounds per month for each title included, as well as sell the book to the store at a sizeable discount. Added to which, the specifications for the sort of books included in price promotions are growing stricter, thus further reducing the range and type of books readers are being offered. As one publisher points out, “nobody ever consults the customer about this”.

Not only readers suffer, though. As Le Fanu says, “authors feel they’re collateral damage in this war, because publishers are making money on a few big sellers and are prepared to pay large sums to keep big authors”. These authors devour a disproportionate amount of publishers’ marketing budgets, leading to “the gap between lead authors and the rest of the pack getting bigger”. So, paradoxically, just as the publishing industry is producing more books than ever, so bookshops are stocking a smaller percentage of that number, and more authors, not to mention readers, are feeling very hard done by.

The peculiar irony of bookshop economy dictates that bestsellers are kept in a perpetual selling loop by being remorselessly promoted. Only those publishers with a bestseller to their name can afford to buy window display space. Readers may imagine that the books in the window have been selected by merit – that is, after all, what you’re supposed to think. In fact, the choice is made purely on the basis of who can pay to display. So an interesting novel from a small Scottish publisher, for example, will struggle to see daylight, ousted by the same title you have seen in every bookshop window the length and breadth of the UK and at the head of the bestseller lists.

The reduction in the quality and range of books we’re offered in bookshops is apparent to anyone who cares to look. What is not visible to the naked eye, however, is the extent to which booksellers are now calling the tune, not just in the discounts they demand, but in the influence they wield on what is published in the first place. It is now common practice for a bookshop to dictate what cover image should go on a title, or refuse to stock a book if its jacket does not appeal or if the author’s earlier titles did not sell well. Some publishers won’t publish a book if a bookseller’s head office has read the advance information on it and found it unappetising.

Open the Bookseller magazine, the book trade’s house organ, and you’ll come on cheerful photos of booksellers from a store’s head office (ie the office that dictates what stock is bought) enjoying foreign jaunts at the expense of a publisher, during which the publisher will punt the next season’s books in the hope that they will gain favour and stock space. It’s not corrupt, and it’s not covert, but at the very least it’s deeply dispiriting, not to say distasteful.

The idea that bookshops are influencing what is published is alarming, especially when you see the extent to which they are pulled towards bestsellers in the league of, say, Dan Brown. Whatever their personal philosophy or aspirations, the managers of chain stores have to work towards the biggest profit possible, at the expense of taking risks by broadening their stock, backing a whim or raising their literary standards.

Readers, however, are beginning to find ways round the lack of choice they’re offered. Aware that many bookshops don’t stock the titles they want they are turning in two directions: first to the internet, be it Amazon, or publishers’ own websites, or electronic publishing; or else to second-hand shops. But before your spirits rise at the image of a wealth of second-hand treasure, remember that the rising number of charity bookshops is fuelled largely by the quickly disposable books chain stores are selling. Whether it’s in Oxfam or Barnardos or the PDSA, the bulk of the books they sell are dog-eared versions of the chain stores’ front of shop wares: John Grisham, Bill Bryson, Gillian McKeith, and so on. As Orwell predicted, when books are cheap, they lose their value.

But while the outlook is gloomy, and darkening, not everything is worse than it used to be. No matter what company they work for, the booksellers I know and meet are neither callous nor blasé about books, and could no more see them as “product” than a mother could view her baby as a reproductive statistic. Almost without exception they are dedicated, highly informed and passionate about their work. As in so many industries that have to tread the line between intellectual integrity and commercial necessity, they are under great pressure. They may not be able to reverse the tide, but they are not allowing it utterly to swamp them.

And in Scotland we are relatively lucky: many booksellers in major chains are given free rein for grading and stocking Scottish titles. While nowhere here offers a range of national books to rival the displays Irish bookshops, for instance, give to their own literature, we are at least offered a reasonable diversity of recent and perennially popular books, far more so now than in the three months when I worked in Waterstones and was in charge of its bijou Scottish corner.

Perhaps the most cheering note in current bookselling is the handful of small, independent bookshops that do a decent trade outside the central belt, in areas where the chain store accountants wouldn’t stop to tie a shoelace: in Ullapool, Inverkirkaig and, most recently, Aberfeldy. Their success lies not only in their location but, one suspects, because they hark back to a better age when a bookshop was not a barn, and books were treated as individuals, not commodities.

The advent of Waterstones was a mixed blessing. Its sophisticated aspirations raised expectations at precisely the same time as people were being given greater access to and information about books. When those aspirations crumbled under the financial cosh, a brasher breed of shop was born. The fault for the decline of bookshops cannot wholly be laid at the chain-stores’ door, but much of it can. In their headlong rush for profit, chains not only lost sight of the subtleties of bookselling, but forgot to take on board their most loyal customers. When they ripped the heart out of the bookshop market, they also destroyed its soul. Those of us who believe in purgatory believe we can hear it howling out there, begging to be saved.

Rosemary Goring is Literary Editor of The Editor

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