About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Things from England retailing

One of the problems with modern agriculture is that of monoculture. A particular type of corn or banana or tomato might be wonderful but if everyone grows only that one wonderful thing and that one wonderful thing meets but one determined enemy then there goes your entire crop. 

Sitting back after London Book Fair, I worry that the biggest threat from the ebook isn't so much that it in and of itself will wipe out the print book but rather that it will lead to a monoculture for the retailing of the print book, and that it will be the monoculture that kills.  And the UK may be leading the way.

Waterstones is the print book retailer in the UK. There are supermarkets with a couple of hundred titles or HMVs or WH Smiths that have book departments of varying size.  But if you want to find a few thousand books to choose from instead of a few hundred, there is only Waterstones. 

So at this point in time, virtually the only books selling at bookstores in the UK are the ones being carried at Waterstones and Waterstones is ailing. 

It is currently owned by HMV, the music/video chain that is ailing. It is for sale, maybe to some Russian tycoon, maybe with participation of someone from the Waterstones family. Will it be sold?  Will the new owners have the cash and ideas to bring the company forward?  

If not them, who?  A few Foyles stores in central London, a Blackwells, not much else left. 

Even now, the merchandising at Waterstones is hideously boring, every store filled with the same pastel-signed mix-and-match 3-for-2 tables and bays. No sign of the theme tables selected by local stores that were there a year ago. Barnes and Noble can be boring in the same way but at least doesn't have blaring pastel signs that suggest the only reason to buy a book is because it is 3-for-2 and books aren't subject to VAT. 

Two years ago Borders was still around with a broader range of US imports, which Waterstones now has in lesser quantity.  Bad that "illegal" US imports are less likely to introduce an author to the UK, good that prospective sales to UK publishers less likely to be dampened by loss of sales to imports, bad that Amazon still does "illegal" imports on anything it can so if no print book chain is providing a range of in demand US titles it drives more sales to the Internet and away from physical stores.  And Borders/Books Etc. had sufficient mass to maybe give a book a physical presence without Waterstones including a much wider assortment of imports from the US.

Happily for my business we have Charlaine Harris who is carried to a degree at HMV, Smiths, other places that sell a small range of books. And the Brandon Sanderson and Jack Campbell books are very big business at Waterstones as is Peter V Brett with a smaller # of books out. Three years ago Elizabeth Moon was our top seller, and she sells as well as she ever did and has a presence at every Waterstones while our overall business in the UK is much bigger. 

But there is a cost. Overall I think the typical UK store may carry fewer of our non-Charlaine titles than a few years ago. The rich are getting richer but if in 2008 I could say it was a publisher excise to say they could only buy things they could afford to promote now it seems genuinely the case that a smaller book will have a hard time fighting is way to the fore. The retail environment is boring, not much reason to get excited about entering any one store and no other store to go to for some variety. 

And I fear it may only get worse. And if this one kind of boring chain to stop isn't there, the market is dead. Dead. It will be Amazon. And Amazon. And Amazon some more. 

There is a cautionary lesson for publishers in the US. Publishers don't want to resume trading with Borders on standard trade terms and understandably so, but they should want a Barnes and Noble monoculture even less. 

I do not know if the Kindle has any big box retail partners in the UK. In bookstores, the Sony eReader is much more prominent than in the US which makes it more annoying that Sony doesn't seem to be very open to a range of content providers the way that other eVendors are. There are other readers like the iRiver and Elonex that we are unfamiliar with in the US that also have substantial UK bookstore presence. We need to get Sony to return our calls and explore some of these obscure vendors if we are to have the penetration in the UK market for the JABberwocky ebook program that we have in the US. 

Quantity wise the biggest title counts non-Charlaine for our clients were around two dozen books, the worst stores more like 12 or 15. Forbidden Planet, which imports with abandon, had around 100. 

I stopped by two old Borders in outer London that were still empty 15 months after closing, the one on Charing Cross at the Borders HQ is a TK Max store, the Oxford St flagship had been sold to a fashion retailer to raise cash ahead of the company going under and the Oxford store now a Tesco Metro grocery store. 

In Australia, 16 Borders are closing (9 will remain open) as part of the REDGroup bankruptcy along with dozens of small format Angus and Robertson stores. There are dueling lawsuits between REDGroup and A&R franchise stores that want to break away.  Like unhappy families each Borders chain has gone bankrupt in it's own unhappy way. 

Here in the US would you go to work for Borders right now?  Since most sane people would say no, the need for the bankruptcy court to approve some kind of bonus and retention plan for Borders execs is real. I hate to say so, don't like these plans at all as a rule, but here it does seem necessary. 

Bottom line here is that I'm not encouraged by what I see in the UK, and have deep fears that we're heading in the same direction in the US.

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