Friday, June 05, 2009


A particularly interesting article appeared on the Bookseller a couple of weeks ago regarding Waterstones, which for various reasons I have only just round to writing about, which to my mind at least serves to highlight the sheer stupidity of the discounting culture so prevalent among book selling today.

The article, which is dated May 17th states that Waterstones have begun selling selected titles online at above the recommended retail price, echoing the spoof predictions made by those wonderful people at the Big Green Bookshop for 2008 (a promotion of 50 percent on was mentioned, I seem to recall) albeit a year late. This is despite the fact that most of these titles can be purchased at lower prices at other retailers such as Borders and Amazon. Many of these items appear to be maps rather than books, which do not have RRP's actually printed on them, and allowing Waterstones to more easily get away with this. The publishers concerned claimed that Waterstones had not informed them of this move.

A spokesperson for Waterstones said "Waterstone's reviews its prices on a regular basis and we aim to offer the best range of titles on the high street, with a huge amount of them discounted or available as part of a promotion at any one time. We have changed the prices on a very limited number of products and are now looking at how customers respond to the changes within the context of wider promotional activity."

An unnamed employee (and several others have since joined in the debate) claimed that Waterstones were actually doing this to protect their profits, in the face of high discounting on faster selling products, and it was and is in fact, a form of price fixing, but that as usual, the consumer would have the final say.

The thing about RRP's is the word recommended - it means just that - a recommended price, which is not set in stone, Waterstones are then at perfect liberty to charge what they want, if the market allows them to. If you think about this for a moment, if they were not allowed to change RRP's then they would not be allowed to discount at all, this was always a good get out for me when customers used to complain about wrong price labels in my old job, although of course when you mentioned this they inevitably did ask for a discount. I then offered the product at the price they thought it should be at rather than the higher price on the actual label, meaning that everyone was a winner - not that they saw it that way ...

If this is in response to high levels of discounting, then it only serves to highlight the sheer stupidity of this system, but perhaps more importantly, it also serves to show both retailers and consumers that there is a dark side to this - that some products will need to be hiked up in order to compensate for this. Does the consumer lose out - no I don't think they do, as they get more products at lower prices than ever before - they are as always free to go elsewhere if they do not wish to pay these higher prices. It may not be convenient to do so, but it is not convenient for authors to have their royalties slashed either by discounting - we just have to put up with it. It will be good news for the independents who may suddenly find themselves in the position of being able to undercut the chains, just for a change.

Short notes from the book industry conference

An edited version of the address by Ian Hudson, outgoing President of the Publishers Association, to the Book Industry Conference has been posted on Book Brunch, which can be read here.

WH Smith's Rachel Russell gave an interesting talk on day two regarding the life of the book. She began by asking the audience what they thought the life cycle of a bestseller actually was. Apparently only 50 percent of titles that hit the top 100 each month were still selling in 'sufficient quantities' 12 months later. This Rachel said, "proves there is a vibrant back list". But what exactly is back list?

Back list is an industry concept used to describe books that sell in slow but steady numbers long after their initial launch, perhaps for years - my own book, which has been in print for three years now, could be described as back list. It is also though, according to Rachel, something that restricts retail offers, since these books do not sell in sufficient numbers to be considered for promotional offers - three for two's and so on (something that should in my opinion be applauded and not derided, as this way everyone makes more money, which I thought we were all in business for).

These days it seems that it is about the consumer, and what he or she wants, or rather what they believe consumers want. Yes, top 100 paperbacks do sell by the cartload, but the bread and butter of book selling is and always has been the back list, start discounting that when the industry is already facing challenges from the Internet and digitisation, and well, the slippery slope will become a whole lot more slippery. You might as well empty a bottle of olive oil all over the board room floor, although goodness knows what Popeye would say ...

Several suggestions were made to help drive sales - promotions featuring the top ten authors of the 2000's (or other decades) - across both children's and adults, targeting authors with large back lists. As Rachel though said "It needs to be credible. Not who pays the most to feature in the concept." The second suggestion was an adaptation of the Now That's What I Call Music series - featuring say 10 influential novels (why it is never non fiction) with mass appeal.

An interesting idea that may work if the price was right ...

Longer notes from the conference can be found at the usual sites ...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Borders seek "funding opportunies"

Following on from the report in The Independent, which I wrote about on May 23rd, Borders UK have confirmed that they have appointed a new financial advisor, Clearwater Corporate Finance, to in their own words, seek out "funding opportunities". They have refused to confirm or deny whether this means that UK operations are once more up for sale.

A spokesperson said: "Following the successful completion of a series of major structural changes in 2008, when Borders UK invested in new IT systems, a new supply chain, disposal of underperforming stores and the launch of a transactional website, we are now well-placed to explore opportunities to take new retail space and develop new trading relationships at a time of significant format change in the products we sell. Consequently, Borders UK has appointed an adviser to seek out funding opportunities. We will be keeping our staff and suppliers fully appraised of this activity."

Comments from the Bookseller website suggest otherwise (i.e. that the staff are and have been the last to be informed regarding anything).

The company has been plagued by rumours for months, following problems with credit insurance and several store closures. Risk Capital Partners bought Borders UK for an initial £10m in September 2007 from its then parent Borders Group. The deal allowed for possible further payments of up to £10m depending on sales performance.