The recent news that publishing is growing despite the introduction of digital seems to have lifted the spirits of many in the industry. Why is this such a shock? The only thing the introduction of digital has reinforced has been the fact that people love reading and are prepared to take on more convenient ways to do this via eBooks and online shopping. The cold chill that should be sweeping through James Daunt, Alexander Mamut and book shop owners everywhere is ‘if publishing is flourishing, why are bookshops struggling?’.
Go into your local Waterstones on any given day including Saturday and take a look around. Look into the recess of the store where Costa Coffee is rammed with customers, look around the book aisles and see if there are any people browsing and then look at the till point. Chances are there won’t be a queue of people waiting to be served unless they have a coffee and croissant in their hands. Now see if there is an in-store event. Is the store engaging with the local community by bringing in local authors? Are the staff reaching out to offer their ‘expertise’? Is there any form of engagement between the store and the customers?
Rather than herding people into the back of the store to drink coffee and disassociate with the books why not open this experience out to the store encourage people to break the confines of the ‘coffee shop’ and enter the ‘book shop’. Why not bring in local schools and community groups to engage with books and authors? Why not have in-store events where authors can engage with your customers?
The answer for Waterstones is because Mr. Daunt doesn’t do this in his boutique stores in the ‘select’ areas where Daunt book shops are successful. Well, here’s a newsflash Mr Daunt, Waterstones and Daunt Book Shops are chalk and cheese and what applies to one in no way applies to another. Every week I speak to the frontline troops at many different Waterstones stores and it’s clear that while they know they are engaged in a battle, the communications hitting the front line are confused, open to being misinterpreted, leaving morale at an all time low.
From store managers to shop assistants they wonder what is going to happen next as footfall dwindles and stock remains stubbornly on the shelves. James Daunt will within the next 12 months be able to declare an increase in bottom line profits and he may even then think about returning to manage his own empire, Daunt Book Shops. Leaving him to walk away as the ‘saviour’ of our last remaining high street book chain but this will only be achieved through the closure of the university stores and many other high street stores such as those in Leicester where trading has been particularly difficult or there had been duplication of stores in towns from the legacy of Waterstones acquisition of Dillons and Ottakars book shops. Any positive figures will not be achieved through organic growth but the shedding of ‘dead wood’.
It’s amazing that Waterstones past strength of buying out its rivals may well be part of its current downfall and one wonders if the high street may not have been a healthier place with more competition and not less. Offline retail needs offline competition to stimulate growth. Waterstones needs to reengage with its community, its customers and its suppliers to survive and currently under its present leadership it looks as though this isn’t going to happen.
By excluding local authors and independent publishers, all Waterstones will achieve is make us more creative and determined to find new ways to sell our books without its participation. Independent publishers are opening pop-up shops and taking to selling directly to customers. As technology marches on and book stores remain stubbornly in the 20th century we are taking to the streets with our stock, credit card readers and the ability to sell books at a lower price thanks not to having to give away a large wholesale discount to a store that does nothing but act as a very poor shop window.
Are we prepared for life without Waterstones? The answer is we have been for a long while because they have not been prepared to accept anything but the the large cartel of five publishers who dominate the industry. Independent publishers have had to be adaptable to survive and what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. As an independent publisher I want to trade and work with Waterstones. I am a fan and an advocate for the store even in the face of its downward spiral and lack of association with anyone but the big five. However, as things stand I don’t foresee a rosy future for Waterstones as a High Street presence.
Study the photograph and then compare it with my report from previous years. You will be hard pushed to spot the difference and that is exactly what visiting this year’s London Book Fair was like. Many of the seminars were not just similar, they were the same. And the ones that were not were often shocking in the content within. It was a kinder surprise moment where you have eaten the chocolate only to find that you swallowed the toy too. One talk, I believe this one must have been entitled ‘How to Suck Eggs’ or was it ‘More of the Bleeding Obvious’ I can’t remember which, gave a blow by blow account on how to get published; yet offered nothing in terms of really useful information. I also witnessed word for word and slide for slide repeats from 2012 or was it 2011…they seem to blur. However it held the audience spellbound as they excitedly scribbled every word down as though from the mouth of a messiah. I did wonder when they reviewed those notes if they would find a picture of a naked king.
The digital zone is by far and away the most exciting area at the exhibition but even this year it was dull and uninspiring apart from one or two exceptions. Yet all the major players were there – Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Sony, Samsung and even Barnes & Nobel with its Nook. For those of you who visited and did not find Barnes & Nobel, there is a very good reason. They were in fact hiding in a room with virtually no signage. I am not sure what their strategy was but for the most part they remained locked in a room having private meetings. I did manage to speak to them about various topics Nook related and was pleased to get some answers. The main obstacle for British publishers wanting to get on their platform being B&N’s insistence that British publishers must have an American bank account and that means a US residency. They seemed shocked to learn this and promised to look into it.
Kobo took centre stage this year stepping up the battle to be notice by just about being everywhere in Earls Court 2. Having chosen LBF to launch the Kobo Aura HD eReader it certainly wasn’t going to waste the opportunity and the Kobo stand was pretty packed for most of the exhibition. Amazon were friendly and ready to be engaged but not too prepared to impart much of any use in terms of information regarding promoting books on its platform apart from the horrendous Select program.
The big thrill for many was getting your hands on an M&C Saatchi ‘Books Are My Bag’ bag. This pretentious little bit of fluff was being hailed as the saviour of the print trade and retail alike. Only time will tell, but it kept the ‘Rodney’s & Lucinda’s’ very happy as they strolled around LBF with it slung over their collective shoulders. I do often wonder who these campaigns are aimed at and if they may be missing the target.
There was some good software solutions from EasyPress with Atomik ePublisher an online solution for editing and converting word docs to InDesign files. Sadly the pricing for access to the software makes it only viable to large publishers or certainly publishers with deeper pockets than mine.
The big debate on Monday was ‘Amazon – Good Guys or Bad?’ It’s too late guys, the horse has already bolted on gossamer wings. Trying to control it now is like trying to fight a bush fire with a thimble of water. The publishing industry needs to join forces to stop participating in 20 pence promotions and marketing tools such as Kindle Select and seriously look at pricing of eBooks to nurture a market willing to pay a decent price for digital content. The same goes with printed books. If publishers really cared about book stores it would spend more time reducing print runs and not supplying supermarkets with overstock paperbacks to sell for £1 and less time kidding themselves that books really are their bag.
One thing that I always find disappointing is the lack of presence from our only serious retail chains Waterstones, WHS and to a lesser extent Blackwells and Foyles. Surely this show should present a chance to speak with publisher and authors alike to gain an on the ground overview from the trade.
LBF needs shaking up and 2014 will probably be the last time the show is held at Earls Court as it prepares to be bull dozed and make way for housing and shops – maybe even a book shop. So 2015 should present the perfect opportunity to re-invent this show as it prepares to find a new home. Let’s hope so…
Iain Dale founder of Biteback Publishing has roasted our High St booksellers and online giants Amazon (http://www.thebookseller.com/news/dale-booksellers-have-publishers-over-barrel#comment-71595) and I totally agree with what he has to say.
Waterstones has become almost impossible to deal with especially for book events. London branches have become a no-go zone with store managers demanding authors sell 80 books in 3 hours. It’s fine if you are a big publisher with a line of celebrity authors but Waterstones must live in the real world and realise we can add value and much needed revenue to stores. It is becoming increasingly difficult to get unknown, up and coming talent into the stores. They have started demanding that we hold launch events there instead, getting the authors to invite all their friends for an evening event, conveniently when the store is closed to actual customers. Why on earth would we want to do that and sacrifice a large percentage of sales when a local room above a pub would equally serve that purpose and not steal half the sales?
WHS are even harder to deal with. It’s no wonder publishers are turning to the Internet as the main source of sales. But as Iain points out things are not all rosy here either for publishers or their authors. Amazon has too much power. We surrender 80% to Audible (an Amazon owned company). Just in case you think you didn’t read it right they take 80% of net for every audiobook they sell for us. They do drop to a very generous 75% once you meet certain criteria, giving the publisher a few pennies back for all the investment in producing an audiobook. Amazon’s stranglehold on ebook pricing, especially subsidising ebooks and selling them at 20p to match Sony’s equally mad promotion is harming the industry, just as much as the large publishers do by virtually giving away it’s over run stock to supermarkets. Readers are being constantly reinforced with the idea that paper books cost nothing to produce so ebooks must be worth even less. Value is intrinsically linked with perception.
Waterstones and WHS need to realise that many of its problems stem from its association with the cartel of publisher known collectively as the big five, or is it four or three these days…who knows. Either way they have the whole game stitched up. People will say that talk like this is biting the hand that feeds but occasionally that hand needs to be bitten to make it wake up before it’s too late. If Waterstones and WHS were to collapse tomorrow I would be devastated as I genuinely think there is a place and a need for them on the high street. I just feel that they have lost their way despite James Daunt’s somewhat strange methods of operating. I have already been planning life without Waterstones and WHS through necessity brought about by their restrictive trading methods. So while I will be sad if they went the way of so many of our well-known high street stores, the impact for us will not be anywhere near as harsh as it will be for the big five. Will I be sorry though…that’s a different question.
Rigged charts; rigged sales charts; promotions pushing celebrity TV personalities favourite reads where a publisher’s only criteria for selection is coughing £25K to get a book on the list; leading book award competitions where publishers have to pay £10k out of the prize money if they win…it goes on and on and all the time the reader is being conned and cajoled into believing talent rises to the top.
Congratulations Mr Dale for saying what you have said far more eloquently than I have. I applaud you.
As if authors retailers and publishers do not have enough to worry about, the news that Amazon has received a patent for a system for selling 'pre-owned' digital files may be the straw that breaks the camel's back. For a start it is a nonsense to believe that a digital file can be 'pre-owned'. What we are talking about here is an infringement on the license to sell the ebook, and who will monitor that files are not merely copied and sent on as pre-owned. Regardless of whether the 'original' digital files sits on the cloud or not, allowing sales of 'second hand' digital files is more worrying than piracy and in many respects it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish between the two. Both methods strip the publisher and author's legal right to obtain duly earned royalties from content they have the rights to.
This is clearly a case of Amazon being its usual savvy forward thinking self being at least 500 steps ahead of the current judicial system on digital content ownership. If this is allowed to go ahead we may as well send all of our content out for free because the idea of actually making money out of publishing will die. We will look back on the days where we could sell for 20p (This is another dreadful promotion accepted by the industry that is ultimately harmful) because returns to authors and publishers let alone retailers (except Amazon who will own the patent after all) will potentially be diminishing from the very first day of publication as books find their way immediately into the 'second hand' market. The only option left to publishers will be to dramatically raise the price of eBooks universally to protect the financial investment we put into books and authors.
The world of publishing is listening to you but are you listening to publishers? Caffeine Nights Publishing has been one of the greatest supporters of Waterstones since we began selling books. We know the importance of it as an entity not only in the high street but in the community in general. The same cannot be said of Foyles but they do play an important part in the overall picture of book selling in the UK.
However, it is clear that you are both only transfixed with dealing with ‘the big five’. Your whole business model is suffering because you have become transfixed in a relationship which drives your business, offering you no flexibility to trade with smaller publishers.
Yes, Caffeine Nights is a small publisher and we only offer thousands of pounds to your turnover not millions. I do wonder though if a book for book or like for like study would show who actually gives you greater profit per title if you allowed us to play on a level playing field. By this I mean allowing us to trade directly with you. When we do manage to do this I know that you earn over £3.15 clear profit per copy on an £8.99 sale. This is a much great margin of profit than we as a publisher makes and even more so when we pay our authors 30% royalty on net sales. Yet still you refuse to trade direct on most occasions, preferring to use and pay for an unnecessary middleman (Gardners or Bertrams) to slow the ordering procedure and significantly cut your profit margin. Yet still we hear you bleat about the margins being offered by publishers. I honestly recommend you look at the arrangements you have with your distribution channel before playing the downtrodden retailer.
For over three years we have been trying to talk with Waterstones to get them to make an arrangement with Ingrams to allow direct distribution of our books to their stores rather than through Gardners who take over 20% of the margin for doing little but delaying the delivery of book from store to consumer.
Now Waterstones is closing the door to one of the few channels small publishers have to actually get our books and our authors in their stores by banning book signings from ‘unknown’ authors. Tell me Mr. Daunt how do you expect new talent to become known? Apparently, if we cannot guarantee selling 80 copies on a book event the stores won’t have ‘unknown’ authors. They will of course be delighted if we have an evening launch where we invite people to come and buy the books. Seriously, why would we do that and give you 35% when we could hold that sort of event anywhere and keep the profit margin or pass it on to the reader?
Waterstones and Foyles both need to seriously look at what they mean by being a store for the community if they are not prepared to work with small publishers whose authors work, live, play and buy books in that very community.
Mr. Daunt says he will have Waterstones in profit in two years. If he is not prepared to work with small publishers I say good luck with that and good luck with the future of community literacy and entertainment. Our response has been to actually cut the price of our books on our website (www.caffeine-nights.com) stripping out the margin we used to offer Waterstones and Foyles and passing the saving back to the reader. All this does is enhance the online offering taking more readers away from the high street. It is a move we have resisted for over three years because we wanted a level paying field between the web and the high street.
Mr. Daunt’s response, effectively banning small publishers like Caffeine Nights from its stores, has left us no option which is why from today all of our paperback books are available from our website for £5.99 instead of £8.99. We know no other website or book store can offer our books at this price, so in effect it is a move which will have some impact on them (albeit very minimal). The future is clearly written on the wall Mr. Daunt and Mr. Husain, and its not a pretty one. The truth is, without your participation and forward thinking in working with small publishers, you are doing yourselves and your customers a major disservice. Online will survive and flourish but the days may be numbered for book shops in the high street, which I think is incredibly sad. However, if you are not prepared to listen to small publishers as well as the big five then no amount of oil or gas money will save you.
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