Home > Uncategorized > The beast is loose

The beast is loose

Last Friday I had the pleasure of sharing a platform at the awkwardly named Reading Crime Writing Festival, with my good friend of 30 years, Michael Dobbs. Arriving a few hours before the event, I took a walk around the town centre, to check out the lie of the land, and also to check out the local bookshops, as is my wont. Yes, Waterstone’s was there, I was pleased to see, although that was to be expected still, in the heart of such a large community. Mind you, it wasn’t exactly awash with customers, and not far away I found the empty shell of what had been until recently British Book Shops, the big W’s regional rival. I visited the head office of that chain, and several of its stores, last year. I found a bustling, management-owned, go-ahead company with lots of good ideas, very similar to Ottakar’s, Borders UK and even Waterstone’s itself, in their formative years. Yet little more than twelve months later it has followed two of those three into liquidation.

So what’s the cause? The economic downturn? It can’t have helped, but I’ve heard of anecdotal evidence that when times are tough, people read more. Internet shopping? No doubt about it. In the face of the explosive expansion of Amazon, traditional book stores are under the sort of pressure they’ve never experienced and never anticipated. If they had, they’d have adapted, and set up their own web sales operations well in advance, rather than staring wanly after the bolted horse. Supermarkets? Mightily, and in a way they are more damaging to readers, writers and publishers than Amazon, for they focus almost entirely on hot titles and authors, screwing big stock discounts from  their suppliers, with no interest at all in back list titles. E-books? Perhaps not yet as much as is suggested, but they will impact more and more for sure, given the way that Amazon is pushing its customers towards digital versions as fast as it can, and offering direct access to established and would-be authors with not a sign of quality control. As before, the retail trade has reacted to this rather than anticipating; Sony, the Barnes & Noble Nook in the US, and the Kobo, internationally, are out there, and Waterstone’s are promising their own product, but in the face of the massive marketing campaign that is being thrown behind the Amazon Kindle, most of these formats will be left floundering.

There is a case for suggesting that authors, and possibly publishers, should be all for e-books. They offer instant accessibility and they have minimal production costs, so they should be more profitable even at greatly discounted prices. They’re here and they’re unstoppable, but they are also a danger, if they’re pushed too far and too fast. The majority of people still read old-fashioned books, printed on paper, but with the traditional book retail market having been decimated, many of them are having to go further afield to buy, without any guarantee that when they get there, the titles they’re after will be in stock. If Waterstone’s goes, what will remain in Britain for buyers who want to choose from a broad range of printed books without having to go on line? WHS Smith, which despite its claim to be Britain’s biggest bookseller, is still more of a newsagent, stationer and sweet shop. A steadily diminishing number of independent book stores, subject to all the pressures I’ve listed, plus the added problem of the spread of well-intentioned but pernicious charity shops. Beyond that nothing.

The way things stand, you won’t find my entire back-list stocked in any High Street book shop in the UK. The same is true of any author whose titles run into double figures. I’m fortunate in that I have the asset of http://www.campbellreadbooks.com, where you will find all my titles, signed and post-free in the UK, postage subsidised elsewhere. However most of my colleagues, like it or loathe it, are having to rely on Amazon, which like most bottom-line businesses, has no soul and no conscience. I confess that I use the monster myself, a lot, for lifestyle reasons, and I accept that in principle it’s okay. However if it pursues a goal of total global market domination, it’s not, and the signs are that it’s doing just that. It has already faced one anti-trust suit in the US, and settled out of court before the case even got to proof stage. I wonder how many more will follow in America, and how long it will be before it falls foul of EU competition laws.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Patricia wright
    November 17, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Pretty much the same story on the US side of the pond.-Necessity dictates my purchasing options, tho’, since Ibuymostly UK authors and want them as soon as they’re published in the UK so rely on Amazon UK to get them to me. For the back lists of Rankin, Robinson, Harvey and yourself, I rely on the “used” categories offered on Amazon. Sorry to have to admit to the “sin” of sending the independent book stores to the deep. I find a lot of used book stores where I live butother readers seem not to share my taste in authors. Can’d even imagine a world without the prin ted word!!!

  2. Alison
    November 18, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    it probably sounds like a pathetic excuse, but I used to have books coming out of my ears. However, I have had to move to the tiniest flat imaginable and frankly I just don’t have the room. As a result, the Kindle is an absolute godsend for me. It has many, many pluses – the ease of transport, the fact you can store hundreds of books and so on. It’ll never feel like a book or smell like a book, but I’m afraid in this day of galloping technology it’s the way things are going. I honestly do think that specialist book shops (I used to work in Ottakars and loved it, btw) have just about come to the end of their natural, and from now on, books will be stocked by the big supermarkets more and more. That in itself doesn’t bother me as such – everybody goes into supermarkets, just about. I’m far more concerned about the fate of libraries. The fact that all of ours in York are being turned, or have been turned into ‘Explore’ centres, gives me hope for ours, but not everybody is as lucky.

    • November 18, 2011 at 5:10 pm

      E-readers are a consequence of the internet, and they can’t be uninvented. I have nothing against e-books; in fact, I sell a couple independently on the Amazon platform. Also I have a Kindle and I use it. My concern is about the untrammelled growth of Amazon and its consequences for other retailers, in several sectors, not just book retailers. If the Seattle giant was socially responsible, I’d feel more secure, but there is no sign of that.

  3. Alison
    November 21, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    I absolutely take your point and agree with it regarding Amazon trampling everybody underfoot in seemingly every sector of the electronics market. But it boils down, I suspect, to two very simple reasons: they offer things more cheaply and it’s a convenient way of shopping – in this day and age, people seem much less inclined to browse, or if they do, they will then go and order it online. They don’t seem to be socially responsible – they’re clearly very much more oriented towards making money than perhaps thinking a little about about the ways in which they make money, but unfortunately I also think that they are the way of the future.

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