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.