Saturday, June 26, 2004

The amazing efficiency of the British book trade

Just over a week ago -- Thursday 17 June to be precise -- I said that the British book trade was, in general, not very well managed. And you may, just conceivably, have thought that I was painting the picture a little too black. That I was, so to speak, over-egging the pudding. Surely, you might well have said to yourself, things are not as bad as all that. We all do our best in difficult circumstances. Life is not easy. How unfair it is then, of that grumpy fellow with the long hair, to criticise those who are working hard to put books into our hands.

Well, my dears, I didn't tell you the half of it. Only yesterday I was compelled to remind you that Dorling Kindersley printed 10 million too many copies of their Star Wars books, and pretty much went bust as a result. And today comes further news of the -- ahem -- minor difficulties at Penguin.

Book2book, aka booktrade info, gives us a link to a report in Publishing News (PN). This gives further details of the problems which Penguin UK has been having with the new computer system in its book-distribution centre. These problems have been known about for some time, but, as is fairly typical in the book world, have been muttered about in fairly hushed tones, on the general principle of there but for the grace of God...

The problem, in short, is that the new software doesn't work, or cannot be made to work. This means that Penguin cannot supply books to booksellers -- not, at any rate, through its brand new, much improved, state of the art system. It can only get books to booksellers by using blokes to pick 'em out by hand, just as they used to do in the nineteenth century.

And, so far, the loss to Penguin is estimated at somewhere between £20m and £30m.

Now, the thing is this, see. This is not the first time that the book trade has had this kind of problem. A firm called Tiptree had very similar difficulties ten years ago. You can read the grisly details here. According to PN, Littlehampton was another company which also 'came to grief for much the same reasons.' And I seem to remember yet another book distribution company which went bust as a result of a software debacle, but I won't name it here in case I am misremembering.

Penguin have this week despatched a senior executive to brief the three big firms of authors' agents, one of whom says, 'It's a nightmare.'

And what, I hear you asking, what of the poor bloody infantry? Has anyone devoted a moment's thought to them? Well, it seems that Penguin authors who go into bookshops, looking for their new books, are being told that they ain't there and aren't likely to be there for some time. But don't worry! Penguin is planning to write to their authors. Soon. To explain the situation. So that's all right then. The authors aren't likely to worry about the loss of a little income -- they only do the job because of a deep-seated love of literature.

Oh, and by the way. PN also reports that Penguin got 'little change for a million pounds' when the firm bought rights to Rageh Omaar's Revolution Day, a book which has so far sold a disappointing 25,000 copies. Disappointing, that, is, if you've paid a million for it.

Like I always say, publishing fair takes your breath away. Never a week goes by without I sit here having to pick my jaw up from somewhere near the floor.

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