Monday, June 11, 2007

People are funny that way

Why the book business is seriously weird

For weeks I've been reading press reports about how, in the UK at least, no bookseller can make any money out of the last (and shortly forthcoming) in the Harry Potter series. The big supermarkets are going to sell it as a loss leader, just to get people into their shops, with the result (it is claimed) that other booksellers will have to match that price -- or get near it. Result? All retailers will earn zero profit, out of the biggest bestseller in history.

The latest gloom and doom story along these lines appears in the Independent and is summarised by the Bookseller.

Now this is ridiculous. The appearance of the conclusion of the HP series is going to provide the retail book trade with its largest volume of purchasers ever; punters will be literally banging on the doors and demanding to hand over their money. And yet no one can make any profit out of it? I can't imagine, frankly, a more vivid demonstration of the general cluelessness of the entire UK book trade. And signs are that it's not much healthier elsewhere.

Well, if I was a small independent bookseller, I know what I'd do. I'd make the best of a bad job. I'd put up a big window display, with a placard out in the street (until the health and safety police stopped me), saying 'Get Your Full-Price Harry Potter here! Do Not Accept the Cheap and Inferior Editions On Sale Elsewhere! Buy the Real Thing Now!'

And so forth.

Words of wisdom

Speaking of large numbers of readers, what's the most popular book in the world, viewed from a long-term perspective of, say, the last couple of hundred years?

No. Wrong.

According to Martial Development (link from reader Elberry) it's the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (sometimes written as Lao Tse and other variants). Martial Development also points out, with reasons, that, if he were around today, Lao Tzu probably couldn't make ends meet by using AdSense. I am inclined to agree.

One of Lao Tzu's aphorisms is: Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.

Which certainly puts me in my place.

While we're on this subject, don't forget that Ron Hogan did his own translation of the Tao Te Ching. Ron was the creator of the Beatrice site, in 1995 -- surely one of the first of its kind. And he is currently one of the editors of Galleycat.


Anonymous said...


The ludicrous discounting with HP7 is to be expected : what is not to be expected is the manner in which virtually every obvious title, guaranteed to show a profit for the terrestial booktrade, is predatory priced by the supermarkets and the likes of Amazon to ensure that the terrestial bookshops do not get such sales. Such outlets are prepared to loss lead on books in the hope of destroying the traditional bookshops.

The cabbage sellers and likes of the Basin are winning round one, but the terrestial bookshops have a secret weapon (other than our knowledge of books) ; more will be revealed in the coming months.

Dick Headley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"The world has gone mad!" one bookseller cries. I suspect everyone has done well with HP in the end.

For anyone who hasn't, Hogan's "Tao" is well worth reading.

Dave Fragments said...

Like teen adventure books haven't gone wild? Everyone is writing a YA book and shoving it into stores. Get a kid interested and they'll buy more books.

Anonymous said...

Independent booksellers can do a lot of things that big box retailers can't and won't do--you won't see Wal-Mart or hosting Hogwort's Nights, or other HP events, as a local bookseller in my area is going to do. It is undoubtedly a sorry state of affairs for the independents these days, but rather than wail and gnash teeth, start trying to make the bookstore a community gathering place. Heavens knows, we all need those now more than ever.

Julia said...

This is seriously absurd. Makes me think that it's probably not all bad with the fixed book prices we get in Germany, at least from a seller'S perspective (although they can be undercut as well).

Anonymous said...

Julia, yes fixed book prices in Germany is certainly helping the traditional bookshops : however, in part of Switzerland it was recently agreed to abolish retail price maintenance on books (NBA) - this action was met with total astonishment by those (internationally) who have watched the fragmentation of the British book market.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Some of the small bookstores around here (Berkeley, California) throw Harry Potter parties and sell the thing the minute after midnight that they're allowed. I don't think they do big discounts. But maybe staying open late eliminates the profit?