Monday, August 22, 2005

Mr Big in books put me on to an article in the New Statesman. It is available online, sort of, but you have to pay at least £1 to read it. Instead I went out and bought a copy, because it was a while since I’d read the magazine, and that cost me £2.50.

The article is by Nick Cohen, who is presumably the same Nick Cohen who wrote the book Pretty Straight Guys – an analysis of the New Labour types who are anything but – and various other pieces for the Guardian, Observer, and so forth.

Cohen’s subject is Mr Big, the jokey name that he gives to Scott Pack, the buying manager for Waterstone’s, which is one of the UK’s top bookselling chain stores (200 shops, 14.7% of the market).

Literary London, says Cohen, fears Scott Pack, largely because he cares little for literary London; the literati regard him as ‘cheap and tasteless.’

Pack’s crime, apparently, is that he is not impressed by airy-fairy literary prizes; the Booker, he claims, does not sell books – not many, at any rate. Neither does our Scott have much time for the broadsheet review pages, which ought to be a means of getting punters eagerly into the shops but aren’t. (Given that the broadsheets seem to concentrate on books like Specimen Days, which is currently getting acres of space, I can’t say I’m surprised.)

So, the result of all this is that Waterstone's, under Pack, is going ‘downmarket’; which means that they are going to concentrate on stocking books that sell.

Can’t see anything much wrong with all that myself. Scott Pack seems like a man after my own heart.

However, the overall tone of the Cohen article feels a bit odd to me. He refers to the sale or return process as if it was something new, introduced solely by Waterstone's; and ditto the practice of publishers buying display space.

Cohen also appears, in places, to side with the literary lot. He seems to find it unacceptable that, even if a book makes the Booker long list, Waterstone’s will not necessarily stock it. And he states that, as a result of Waterstone’s strategy, ‘the next generation of serious writers will find it harder to reach an audience.’

Quite why anyone should think that those who write literary fiction are more serious than those who write crime or romance, I am at a loss to know.

However, at the end of the piece, Cohen says this: ‘Listening to Pack’s incandescent critics, I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for him. Anyone who has heard the herd of editors, publishers, authors and critics mooing their political and cultural clichés at a London literary party and not felt the urge to reach for a baseball bat is less than human.’

Well quite. Quite.

So, the New Statesman article is a bit of a hodge-podge really, and I wouldn’t encourage you to go out and spend money on it.

Rather more interesting, and free, is a piece in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph. This is a similar discussion of Waterstone's role in the marketplace, with much less emphasis on the influence of Mr Big.

So worried are the publishers about offending Waterstone's, which is one of their biggest customers, that they will not be quoted by name. However, there are lots of anonymous quotes. The article begins by suggesting that Waterstone's may have lost a lot of money on the latest Harry Potter, which Waterstone's deny, and goes on to discuss how the firm will cope with competition from the supermarkets.

'If Waterstone's wants to just be a mass-market retailer,' says one publisher, 'then it has to take on Tesco on price. And Tesco will eat it for lunch. Waterstone's is simply not geared to that cut-throat competition.'

Well, we shall see. At least these two articles do demonstrate that there are a few people in the UK book trade who are trying to think straight and who are aware of the economic facts of life. And I suppose that’s worth knowing about. Kind of reassuring, really. Maybe there’s hope yet.


Liam said...

you never had to work with Pack. He's evil. One day all will realise it; when I began working for the 'Stones, booksellers and their knowledge, passion and salesmanship were acknowledged by the higher-ups. Pack represents nothing less that the dawn of an era where shop-floor staff are demeaned to the point of meaningless cash-handling and where retail chains are allowed by publishers to determine what is published and what is sold in our industry. That you can endorse this is, frankly, astonishing.

aardvark said...

Liam, you never had to work with Pack either so keep your opinions to yourself.

Here is an alternative view on the allegedly evil Packmeister.

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