Wottakers

The Observer has an interesting bit on the attempted anschluss by my former employers on Ottakar’s as it enters the final week: the OFT should make a decision by the end of this week according to this article. It has been pretty hard to hear anyone defend this move outside of LiquidBricks – publishers large and small, authors new and bestselling, wholesalers, literary critics, reviewers and readers have all objected in the strongest terms. Personally I think it would be a very bad move for readers, authors and publishers in the UK and potentially disastrous in Scotland where any merged group would have a strangehold.

In the article my old employer protests that they are “not a one-size-fits-all retailer,Each of our bookshops has its own unique range profile and each branch also has space at the front of store to promote a choice of books picked by that branch.” Well, that is not the way I saw the company latterly – it is the way I saw it when first started there, but in my opinion range has suffered enormously at the hands of centralised buying and planning while the section management at local level by expert booksellers is something which has been almost extinguished. And no, that’s not just sour grapes, it is something I felt for a good long while and remarked upon many times. I’ve also had first hand knowledge from some smaller publishers who I always supported who have told me how much harder the company has made it for them.

I understand some centralisation for national promotions and buying strategies but over-centralisation turns a bookstore into a supermarket and destroys the idea of specialist, expert booksellers (which doesn’t exactly boost staff morale either) and makes the bookstore less attractive to heaby readers. Since those smaller publishers (some Scottish and some from elsewhere) all sold very well in the branch I worked in it is also short-sighted not to support them; it is a relatively small investment in time and resources at local level and it can pay dividends in both sales and enhancing the reputation of the business locally; not doing so can harm your reputation (you don’t want to see papers running stories saying you don’t support local writers). Ditto on the author events programmes – something Ottakars does very well but at LiquidBricks is a shadow of the programme it used to be.

A friend who no longer works for the company once told me she attended a meeting at head office to discuss children’s books for Book of the Month and other campaigns. She endured half an hour of talk of ‘units’ and ‘turnover’ and ‘market placement’ before commenting she thought she was there to talk about choosing the next lot of Children’s Books of the Month and to her horror they said ‘we are’. This is when she suspected that perhaps the love of good books was no longer central to the bookselling strategy… Personally it still makes me shiver to realise that to some professional marketing person a book is simply a ‘unit’ to be merchandised… However I also have to say the head buyer they singled out in the article, Scott Pack, I always found to be open to suggestions whenever I emailed any to him or his his team, so maybe not fair for them to try and pin so much blame on him in the article. Still, all said, I still think this takeover would be a very bad deal all round.

Takeover

I’ve remained pretty quiet on the story about my former employer’s making a bid for rival bookstore chain Ottakar’s recently. It is difficult for me to comment on because it could too easily be interpreted as sour grapes or the grinding of the axe (hey, I have no axe to grind, honest – my Viking mate Vegar is the axe man in our gang, I prefer a good sword myself).

Suffice to say I am not in favour of it – not because of my own experiences, but because I believe it can only be bad for readers, authors and publishers (and for many booksellers). Even if I still worked at They Who Shall Not Be Named – indeed even if it was more like the company I first joined years ago I would oppose it. No one bookchain should have such a stranglehold on the high street and on suppliers. It will harm large publishers as even higher discounts and fees for displays are demanded and will crush independent publishers who already struggle to get their books represented in the stores (a result of both business practises and the degrading of local buying – central purchasing and the erosion of expert local buyers in branches have meant it is harder and harder for local publisher to sell their books in local stores owned by chains (not just in my former employer’s chain I must add in fairness, others too).

However, I am not going to go on about it except to point out a few spots where more has been said about it, such as this very emotive piece over on the Overgrown Path and some words from Ariel, which includes a link to the OFT where you can send your thoughts for consideration on the ancshluss; and it will be like annexing another country – I recall when they ‘merged’ with Dillons but promised they would run alongside the company, yet not long after the ones which did not get closed were all re-branded and Dillons vanished. I really don’t want to see this happen to Ottakar’s too.

Do we really want one uber-bookchain feeding us an ever-diminishing range of promoted titles at the expense of variety, diveristy and range depth? With independent bookstores finding it ever more difficult and new authors struggling to be picked because publishers must come up with books they can sell in big numbers to recoup the amount they give away in fees and discounts to chains our literary world is about to get smaller and that is a bad thing. The Telegraph also posted an interesting piece on the subject here, which I found via Cheryl’s excllent weblog on Emerald City. I thought Alan Giles’ comment that publisher weren’t forced to do business with They WHo Shall Not Be Named was hilarious – who, especially given this attempt to take an enormous chunk of the British high street booksales, are they supposed to sell their books to? This attitude is exactly why this merger should not be allowed by the OFT – it will harm the booktrade, deny readers choice and put even more pressure on the remaining independent sellers and publishers.