Friday, April 30, 2004

More on WHS

Today's Publishing News carries a long and surprisingly informative article about the current state of W.H. Smith, which is arguably the UK's largest bookseller.

Kate Swann, the new CEO, is quoted in remarkably frank terms. WHS, she says, is inefficient, too bureaucratic, and lacking in accurate information. Customers, of course, have known this for some time, but it is refreshing to hear it from the boss lady. She goes on to acknowledge that there is justification in the complaints from suppliers about the difficulty in communicating with the WHS HQ staff at Swindon. Yes indeed. Brick wall stuff, in my experience, although no different from dealing with any other large entity in the book world.

WHS owns a surprising number of bits and pieces in addition to the core shops, and one of those bits is the publisher Hodder Headline. HH has this year made 'an exceptional provision of £9m against author advances.' I wonder what that means. I suspect it means that they have paid authors some £9m more than the HH beancounters currently think they are worth. Though whether the authors think they have been paid £9m more than they are worth is open to question.

It has always been irksome to publishers that they actually have to pay money to those weirdo deadbeats who wander in with manuscripts under their arms. You'd think authors would be glad to be rid of the burden really. Dead authors, on the whole, are much more satisfactory to deal with. They don't whine and whinge about the covers of their books, for one thing, and if they're out of copyright you can use their stuff for free. Trouble is, quite a lot of publishers are wise to the same dodge, so the reprinting of 'classics', as they are quaintly called, is a pretty competitive field. Walk into any bookshop and see how cheaply you can buy a copy of something by Dickens, for example.

The author of the PN article, Fred Newman, is not exactly optimistic about WHS's future. He points out, correctly I'm sure, that the firm is uncomfortably positioned between the specialist retailers on the one side and the supermarkets on the other. They are thus going to have to make the selling of mass-market books their strong suit, which means that they will be in a price war, et cetera.

Now I tell you what. When the high-street price war hots up, even more than at present, margins are going to get shaved. 'Economies' are going to be made. 'Efficiency gains' will be looked for at every level of the business, from author to reader. Printers, for instance, can make efficiency gains through new machinery. Publishers can shave costs by dumping their full-time employees and using freelances as and when. But guess who, in the whole process, cannot easily make efficiency gains. And guess who, when push comes to shove, will end up doing the same job for less money.

The poor bloody authors, that's who.

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