Thursday, May 15, 2008

One hell of a ride

Today it looks very much like I will soon be out of a job. We were told at work some time ago that a big announcement would be made to the City today regarding the future of the company and where we were heading, and it was not good news.

Our parent company have decided to close 77 stores. Most of these closures will come about in the form of natural wastage - simply put the stores will close as and when their leases expire. The lease in our store expires at the end of July, and so it seems that mine will be too, and I will have to look for a new job.

While this is still not official, it is as good as a done deal. While I had been half expecting this for several months, it has still come as a bit of a shock to find that despite my rantings about the job on here, I have got used to going there four mornings each week and interacting with the customers.

The publishing world in the meantime, continues to make waves regarding the firm sale debate, which has now moved from Publishing News and onto The Bookseller. This is good, as it means I can post comments of my own, and maybe get some kind of dialogue going. There are one or two independent book sellers who have already added their own comments, and appear to have similar views to my own.

The article on The Bookseller does not say much that Publishing News did not, but whitters on about how unfair it is that book sellers should have to bear the risk, and heaven forbid, actually be responsible enough to carry the can for their own buying decisions. One retailer has said that the changes will affect areas such as academic titles, backlist titles bought for signing sessions, and marketing promotions, all of which would be counted as backlist, but would not be stocked by booksellers if they could not be returned.

The head of one retail chain, whom the article does not name, added that the level of returns was "ridiculous", and that he was sceptical about the motives behind a firm sale move. "There's a touch of green wash in recognising an opportunity to do something really significant in changing terms but dressing it up in green clothing," he said. "I believe that a move that forces improved efficiency is not necessarily a bad thing, but that comment applies to publishers and agents as it does to retailers." Same old, same old...

Another article, this time from Publishing News, states that publishers are reacting angrily to a crude attempt by Amazon to increase its discount. This will no doubt be of interest to my publishing friends across the pond. It is interesting to see that Amazon's demands are as I predicted some time ago, also affecting commercial publishers, and are no longer confined to the self publishing sector through print on demand, not that they ever were, since these days most commercial publishers also use this printing method at least for backlists. The debate re discounting has forced the issue much more into the open, and it is interesting to see the parallels here between the firm sale issue and this issue with Amazon, for if the book sellers get their way, then higher discounting will become the norm rather than the exception, in order to compensate for the loss of returnability.

It seems that Amazon are doing exactly what they did to the print on demand publishers - going from publisher to publisher with extortionate demands, and if they do not persuade one publisher to play ball, then going back to the first house and saying that X has agreed to such and such.

Publishers say that this isn't the first time this has happened, and they are angry and fed up. One unnamed spokesperson said: “UK publishers already give the biggest terms in the world, far larger than the US and Australia. What we see is Amazon attempting a strategy of world domination. In the US, we've already seen them demanding that publishers use their facility for print on demand. It seems that the only people who benefit in the value chain are Amazon. They already have 15 percent of the market in the UK.”

Publishing News estimates that if Amazon continue to grow at this rate, their market share will have doubled to 30 percent within three years. There is then a very real danger that this will result in book store closures. The article goes on to say what Angela Hoy and others like myself have been saying for months, namely that Amazon will then be in a position of such dominance that they will be able to dictate whatever terms they want and destabilise the entire market.

One CEO went as far as to hint that the Competition Commission should look at the situation, although others were not so certain. It certainly hasn't got print on demand authors very far in America. It seems that like the US, the Competition Com­mission here in Britain, pays little heed to protecting the interests of authors and publishers. Perhaps when Amazon do get to the stage where they have 25 percent of the market then they might be interested, but I suspect that by then it will already be too late, as hundreds of book stores, and small presses will have been driven out of business unable to compete with Amazon's aggressive pricing strategies and free deliveries.

Print on demand publishers may have found an ally, since one CEO commented that his company are not moving one single inch, and are if necessary prepared to lose a years sales with Amazon. I say good luck to him. He will need it.

The rise in the Internet does not impact only book sellers, as it is in many ways also responsible for the almost certain loss of my own job. How though do you stop this slide - the answer as always lies within the hands of the buyers - they have to change their attitudes away from themselves and immediate gratification to one of long term gain that benefits all. Everything in time always goes full circle, and in time it will swing back, but in the meantime I feel that we are in for an interesting ride. Where this will end up I do not know, but one thing I do know is that the scenery will be magnificent.

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