Even though this posting is about travel writing, it has implications for all writers in all genres, so bear with me. Britain's largest stationery and bookshop chain, WH Smith, has signed a year-long exclusivity deal with publishers Penguin to stock only Penguin travel books (Rough Guide, DK and Sawday) in their shops at BAA airports, rail stations and motorway service stations. This restriction of choice is further compounded by the fact that at all BAA airports in the UK, WH Smith is the only allowed bookstore.

WH Smith say that the deal was struck because people were 'time pressed' at airports and rail stations, and wanted a smaller range of titles. The 'time pressed' argument just doesn't hold water. I've spent a lot of time in airports, and in none of them have I been time pressed. The opposite is the case. I have time on my hands as I hang about waiting for my flight to be called. As Penguin has bunged a wad of cash up front to WH Smith and heavily discounted their titles, it seems the real reason may have more to do with profit and corporate greed.

Penguin books account for only 18% of the travel book market in the UK, and many destinations are not covered by them - even destinations serviced by the airports. Penguin publish very good travel and guidebooks. I have no argument with that. I have even bought them in the past. It is just that travellers are having their choice of travel books severely restricted, and travel writing will suffer. Over 400 outlets are affected, which should have a huge effect on book sales.

And importantly for crime writing, is this the thin end of the wedge? Will WH Smith enter into exclusivity deals with other publishers in all genres? Will crime writing be affected eventually, with only books from one publishing stable being stocked in its shops? Will it only stock certain magazines and newspapers because it gets a better return on them?

I have to admit to a vested interest, as part of my income derives from writing guidebooks. But there is a principle here that stretches across all genres. Already Michael Palin and Dame Margaret Drabble (chair of the Society of Authors) have spoken out against the restriction of choice. So too have the British Guild of Travel Writers and the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild.

I'm not going to ask anyone to boycott WH Smith, but could you good people travelling from BAA airports on holiday or on business consider where and how you are going to buy travel and guidebooks in the future? Would you look at buying them well in advance from private bookshops, Waterstones, Borders, Amazon and the like?

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Jim, I regard this as a different aspect of a trend we've seen in publishing. It's long been clear that many publishers would like to eliminate the midlist, concentrating only on bestsellers, since they make more money if they can print more copies of fewer titles. But that means less choice for the public. I see what you've posted about as the same thing, from the bookselling side. WH Smith doubtless negotiated a deal that provides them with a slightly better discount if they buy more of fewer titles. But once again, it means less choice for the public. I regard it as a dangerous trend.
Airport stores have always been severely restricted in their offerings.


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