Friday, April 21, 2006

Discount dog-fights

One big difference between the US and UK book trades is in the area of the discounts which are offered by publishers to firms which buy books from them.

In the US (as I understand it), publishers are obliged by law to offer the same discounts to all purchasers (Robinson-Patman Act). There is more than one view as to whether this legislation is binding in all instances (see the US Independent Book Publishers Association advice to their members.) And Eric de Bellaigue, in his book British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, says that while Robinson-Patman may prohibit discriminatory discounts in theory, in practice it merely discourages them.

Nevertheless, the general position in the US is that a small independent bookseller gets to buy books from a publisher at the same rate as a huge chain. Penguin famously lost a case on this issue, brought against them by the American Booksellers Association, and in 1997 had to pay out $25 million as a result.

In the UK, none of that holds. Discounts seem to differ wildly according to whether the buyer is a mammoth supermarket or a mom-and-pop store out in the sticks. Negotiations can be complex.

Not everyone is happy about this situation. See, for example, the discussion at the end of March on the Guardian Unlimited's Culture Vulture blog. Which includes, incidentally, a trenchant comment from our old friend Clive Keeble.

And now it's not just the little guys who are complaining about the discount situation. Now we have Bertrams, one of the two biggest wholesalers in the UK (Gardners is the other) lodging a formal complaint with the Office of Fair Trading, no less. You can read the story in the Eastern Daily Press (link from And there is more in Publishing News, with talk of 'possible collusion between publishers'. Sounds really sinister, doesn't it?

It's a complicated story, but basically Bertrams feel that publishers are trying to push their noses into things which are essentially none of their business. And they're all chasing the same pound.

Moral: there are dog-fights at every level in what was once a gentlemanly business. Unless you enjoy dog-fights, take up knitting instead.

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