Thursday, September 29, 2005

The great Ottakar's merger conspiracy

Last week, while I was away on holiday, a number of stories surfaced which are clearly of importance to the future of the book trade but which generated in me, I'm sorry to say, nothing more than a yawn.

One such was the Google Print row. (Google are hoping to digitise every book ever written in the entire history of the universe. Well, if they do, the search engine had better work a bit better than the one at the top of this page does at the moment; apologies if you are finding it as frustrating as I am, but it ain't my fault.) Anyway, a number of authors have taken objection to Google's plans and have launched a legal case against them.

Sorry, but I can't get excited about that. Google will win in the long run, and a good thing too in my opinion.

And the other major non-story is the proposed takeover of the UK retail book-chain Ottakar's by HMV, owners of another big high-street book firm, Waterstone's. (The result may possibly be known as Wottakar's?) The UK Publishers Association says that this will bring about the end of the world as we know it. If the merger goes ahead, all kinds of bad things will happen: chiefly that publishers will have to give booksellers a larger slice of the book-buyer's pound.

Here again, I'm afraid I can't raise so much as an eyebrow, though the Society of Authors is deeply worried about it. So is Tracy Chevalier.

Yes, it is certainly true that both these proposed developments will bring about significant change. But while Google seem to understand very well the massive difference which the internet has made, a difference which is earth-shaking in relation to the book world, the dear old Publishers Association, and the Society of Authors, just don't seem to have got it yet.

I dare say the Ottakar's deal will reduce competition in the old-fashioned trade and will have some 'damaging' effects. But the Times this morning reports that high-street business as a whole is struggling, while internet sales rose by 31% in August.

The truth is, there is a whole new world of opportunity out there. There are now ways for writers (and publishers, and booksellers) to reach readers which were not only impossible to achieve a few decades ago, but for most of us were even impossible to imagine. And yet it's all there -- available now -- at your fingertips, on the end of your keyboard. (Like this blog, for instance.) All you have to do is wake up to the opportunity and use it in new creative ways.


Zeno Cosini said...

You seem to be eliding two seperate issues at the end of this post. Yes, the diffusion of information on the internet is inevitable, and, for the most part, a good thing; though it needs to be properly policed, for the sake of copyright-holders, and this exploratory US law case is part of that process. And yes, booksellers and publishers are naive if they ignore the uses and benefits of the internet as a book-buying / browsing tool. The Ottakar's acquisition is a seperate issue, and the most serious one our industry faces in the short term. The most important thing to defend in the book market is freedom of choice. The fewer players there are in the book retail sectory, the more likely it will be that decisions about which books to stock and promote will become centralised and limited. The trend is already apparent - it's been hastened by the rise in book sales through supermarkets, which is no bad thing in itself, but has led to chain booksellers responding by promoting (usually price-promoting) a very narrow range of books. HMV has rather disingenuously pointed out that a combined Waterstone's / Ottakar's outfit would command about a quarter of the market. But the overall market includes a large number of specialist retailers; where mainstream fiction and non-fiction are concerned, the figure is closer to 50% or more. Let's be very clear about this: it means at least 50% of the copies of every single new literary novel or work of history would be sold through Waterstone's and Ottakar's combined. The company's power over what gets published and promoted would be unprecedented. That's bad news, for readers, writers and publishers alike.

The Private intellectual. said...

One must remmeber that it was also said the world of bookshops would come to an end when WH Smith - another major bookseller at the time - took over Waterstone's.

To the best of my knowledge, the world is still revoloving, and we can still buy our books online through amazon.