British booksellers catch the French malaise

British Booksellers AssociationThere’s nothing like a bad idea for going viral, and it seems the British Booksellers Association (BA) took a sere and yellowed leaf out of the French government’s book in calling for government curbs on Amazon, as reported in The Guardian. Tim Godfray, the Association’s CEO, was quoted in the article as saying that UK booksellers identify Amazon as “the main threat to their business.” But aside from demonizing Amazon, Godfray seems just as barren of ideas as the French on how to revitalize bookstores.

British Booksellers Association

Tim Godfray

Previous gestures by the BA include support for  Independent Booksellers Week with exclusives from U.S. author Ann Patchett, “who has written an essay in praise of bookshops,” and other print-only offerings. Godfray in the past has called Britain’s independent bookshops: “cultural and community beacons in the high street,” while warning that Amazon has “the ability to destroy the book trade as we know it.”

To his credit, he has also urged that “steps should be taken” to ensure that Amazon opens up its platform to open standards such as EPUB 3—although the Kindle is completely open to Mobi sideloads anyway. But the BA is no stranger to restrictive practices. It operates an Embargoed Titles Listing with the Publishers Association to prevent early sales of titles ahead of their UK release date. “Early selling of major titles can undermine the effort of booksellers, publishers, wholesalers and other intermediaries in their attempt to create media and public interest around the Embargo Date,” goes the official explanation. Those are the same protectionist corporatist instincts that eventually herded the pirate-phobic publishing industry into Amazon’s hands.

Godfray has also warned in the past that “Amazon has the ability from data mining its consumer data to know what its customers buy, when they buy it, what books they actually read on their Kindles.” Yet isn’t that where the independent booksellers, with their close-up-and-personal contacts to customers, are supposed to thrive? And who better than the BA itself to provide those independents with shared data mining platforms to achieve better results, let alone advising independents on how to get to know their customers better and actually keep notes of their tastes and interests?

I happen to think that there are quite a few ways for independent bookstores to survive and thrive in the Amazon era—using the same promotional guerrilla tactics that have served the self-publishing and independent author communities so well. I also happen to think that the BA and its publishing industry peers are the last people to be able to deliver those solutions to booksellers. As Godfray’s apparent priorities confirm, their hearts and minds are just not in the right place.

Just for starters, here’s 28 ideas to help save bookstores. But more of that anon. Meantime, Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, was quoted in The Guardian article calling on the UK government “to look more proactively to protect the whole high street,” and spoke at the end in envious tones on the official Continental attitude towards books. “Books are thought of as high culture in France and Germany; they’re not really here.”

You do have to wonder what the UK government does think of as high culture if it doesn’t include books. But then, if that’s a reflection of British attitudes, is it any wonder that no one goes into UK bookshops? The British government might be better off spending money on education than on protectionism.

About Paul St John Mackintosh (1557 Articles)
Paul St John Mackintosh is a British poet, writer of dark fiction, and media pro with a love of e-reading. His gadgets range from a $50 Kindle Fire to his trusty Lenovo cell phone. Paul was educated at public school and Trinity College, Cambridge, but modern technology saved him from the Hugh Grant trap. His acclaimed first poetry collection, The Golden Age, was published in 1997, and reissued on Kindle in 2013, and his second poetry collection, The Musical Box of Wonders, was published in 2011.

9 Comments on British booksellers catch the French malaise

  1. Revitalizing bookstores, next up revitalizing the cassette playing industry. No doubt many internal combustion enthusiasts also wanted to leave a place for their beloved horses but alas!

    What especially irks one is the well meaning advice from those who have never run a bookstore, and solemnly offers advice that they honestly believe nobody has thought of before.

  2. Paul St John Mackintosh // June 6, 2013 at 1:18 pm //

    It obviously exercises politicians though.

  3. So, Teleread has taken an official position to pimp for Amazon? Disturbing indeed.

    Protecting and promoting small retailers is a social positive. By dispersing economic activity more people are employeed in meaningful work (as compared to being nonunionized warehouse serfs who are paid minimum wage and such).

    There is no upside to creating a homogenized global “culture”. Homogeneity reduces surprise. Economic surpise exists when retail is diversified. Amazon is abt a homgenous global culture,

    Drive through the center of the US. In place of each towns variety of retailers there is only chains and box stores, and Amazon. The Brits and the French do not want to end up a cultural wasteland like the US ios becoming. Both of those countries like their local diversity. Why is this such a negative thing? It’s not.

    And both these articles are not abt ebooks, they are rants against France, and now Britain. Surely there must be Know Nothing, nativist forums where you can go spread the hate?

  4. There is a misleading part into:

    “Yet isn’t that where the independent booksellers, with their close-up-and-personal contacts to customers, are supposed to thrive? And who better than the BA itself to provide those independents with shared data mining platforms to achieve better results, let alone advising independents on how to get to know their customers better and actually keep notes of their tastes and interests?”

    The close-up-and-personal contacts is based on mutual peer to peer relationship, which has a very different social dynamics. The knowledge acquired by the bookshop owner is dependent on what the reader accepts to reveal. There is a friction. Some things are kept secret. Amazon and co are tapping into a frictionless monitoring. When the behavior of the library owner is becoming annoying, the reader has often the possibility to walk out and change shops. With the industrialization of ebooks, this power to act aka change store in case you are not satisfied with some of the terms or their changes is a LOT harder. Few options available, loss of your personal library. There is a lack of interop in between shops.

    Now if local bookstores are needed or will survive to the new era is an entirely different topic. They were already not really surviving in the previous era (not talking about books supermarket such as WH Smith, BN, FNAC, etc.). It has always been a fragile business of local delivery for physical goods which are books. Most of them keep afloat by selling dictionaries or must-read for the local schools in addition to their line of publishing. The bookshop as it is now might disappear, we can regret it but it doesn’t viable without changing completely the shape of the business.

  5. I don’t think TeleRead has an official position on anything unless the editor posts, and maybe not even then. One of the strengths of TeleRead has always been the diversity of opinion of the people writing for it. I know there are a number of times I didn’t agree with David or Paul, but they’ve always let me write what I feel like anyway.

    And some more of that here follows. This doesn’t represent anyone’s official position but my own.

    In discussing the current state of US politics, a friend of mine compared the current choices to having to cast a vote between Hitler and Stalin. It seems like the current state of things in the e-book industry is about the same these days. It’s not a matter of any good choice being available, just what the least bad one is. Personally, I’m concerned about Amazon’s market power too, but that doesn’t mean I want to pay the ridiculous prices publishers want me to for their e-books. And goodness knows, Apple has done at least as many obnoxious things as Amazon, so it’s not like I want to root for them either. (It’s telling that their e-book contract terms were in a lot of ways very similar to Amazon’s, up to and including their own “most favored nation” clause.)

    Anyway, if Amazon is winning in the market right now, it is at least in part because the company has done an amazing job of making the e-book-buying experience as transparent and painless as possible. My day job is providing phone support for a major blue-box store’s house brand of home electronics, so I know exactly how technology-impaired the average consumer is for something even as simple as a television. (I swear, if I hear the words “it says ‘please run channel auto scan'” again…) Making an e-reader easy enough to use that the least common denominator can and does want to use it is an accomplishment, and they deserve to reap the benefits.

    I mean, look, when did Amazon enter the e-book market? And for how long had other e-book companies been around up to that point? We had Peanut Press. We had Fictionwise. And we were all grumbling about how e-books weren’t ever going to take off and wishing that publishers would stop charging $20 for their e-books when the paperbacks were out for $7. Publishers had every chance to get with the program and push their e-books in ways that could get more consumers interested. But those publishers gave very few damns about e-books at that point, and nobody had enough power to push back and get them to care.

    Well, guess what? Amazon smashed that apathy, by being big enough and willing enough to take a loss on some of its e-books in order to get consumers interested. And just like a certain apathetic kid, publishers suddenly found out they did care after all. Too bad it had to take getting eaten by a lion for it to happen.

    So now everyone’s crying for the poor benighted publishers who had to form an illegal trust and defraud consumers because an e-book store had the temerity to dare to treat their sacrosanct products as a loss leader. You know what? Screw them. They formed an illegal trust. They defrauded consumers. This isn’t just the DoJ making accusations. A court of law said so. I’d play them a tune on the world’s tiniest violin, but I think I lost it under a dust mote.

    They had every damn chance to get it right. We begged and pleaded with them to get it right. To at least treat e-books with a little respect, rather than just ignoring them long after they’d dropped the prices on their print editions. They didn’t. So Amazon came along and is now eating their lunch, with gusto. That’s how the market works. Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it?

    Yes, Amazon is Too Big and Too Obnoxious. Well, if they persist in that, sooner or later they’ll get cut down to size too. At least they haven’t done anything out-and-out illegal. And you don’t get a pass on doing something illegal yourself in order to protect yourself from someone who is legitimately outcompeting you.

  6. Deran, je suis un Brit francophone, so I guess that makes me a self-hater, huh? Well, it happens.

    As it *does* happen, I am against stupidity wherever it manifests. And the whole bash-Amazon-for-taking-away-our-bookstores line seems to make about as much sense as people fighting over a water bottle in the path of a tidal wave. E-books are the fundamental threat to bookstores. They were to publishers too, before those finally *kind of* got their act together. Why are we even having this sterile debate? Why are these politicians and industry figures defending a last isolated redoubt when the main battle has long since moved on?

    Amazon is a cynical and soulless company, sure, but I don’t see the traditional bookselling industry behaving any better – see this rant by David Gaughran against Penguin and The Bookseller: And Amazon did at least work out that they did the best business by enabling people – to discover, write and publish. The French government and the BBA still seem to lean towards a top-down we-dictate-the-market approach, rather than enfranchising readers.

    A propos, though, kari, I do completely believe in transferability between book platforms. Amazon, Kobo, the publishers or whoever should facilitate a one-time-for-all policy where buying a book gives you the right to have it on any platform instead of restricting it to one ecosystem. It just seems to make sense to me. I doubt they will, but I live in hope. And I do believe we’ve got the publishers, more than Amazon, to thank for this system which leaves us only having access rights rather than owning the books we buy.

    And I do think bookshops can, and should, survive on a reduced scale, with some careful niche positioning and a wider offering. I don’t recall this much noise on behalf of small independent booksellers when Waterstones or Barnes & Noble rolled out their book strip-malls, though.

    And thanks for the supporting post, Chris. Was that the article I should have written in the first place? 😉

  7. Chris, well said! The freedom given here Is soley with the author and not driven by Teleread as an entity at all. Think about it seriously – if Teleread were to be a pimp for Amazon, don’t you think It would be more blatant?

    It is easy to see that there are plenty of opinion pieces and “voices” on this site. The days have passed when there was a single voice here. The many writers and contributors here allow for plenty diversity.

    Read things for what they are and not “into” them because you may not agree with the organization being covered. Have a strong opinion? Think about becoming a contributor here and help educate others if you have concrete examples and Insights.

    Chris – nice to see your interaction continue here.

  8. Paul M.: You’re welcome, and it might just be. :)

    Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I fume. What the hell were the Big Six publishers thinking? These aren’t Mom and Pop operations. They’re multi-billion-dollar market cap companies, way bigger than Amazon was when it got started. There’s nothing magical about what Amazon did. Sure, maybe e-reader hardware wasn’t in the publishers’ line of business, but Amazon started out as an online bookstore—making e-reader hardware wasn’t originally in its line of business, either. In fact, Amazon’s first attempt at selling e-books (as PDFs) basically flopped miserably.

    There’s nothing Amazon did that the publishers couldn’t have done on their own if they wanted to. They had the money—more of it than Amazon did. They had their own libraries of titles. Any one of them could have gone out and hired hardware people to create a platform to sell their own books as e-books, and slash the prices up front to get consumers invested in it.

    Hell, they could even have gotten together on a platform—they were certainly quick enough to get together on price-fixing after Amazon’s Kindle got big! (In fact, they claimed that a lot of their meetings during the price-fixing thing were for a cooperative effort to sell e-books. Which could even be true, but if so it’s something they should have done ages before.)

    Instead, they piddled away their opportunities. They grudgingly placed titles with Fictionwise and Peanut/Palm Digital/eReader, but didn’t bother to keep prices current with the print editions of their books. They frequently remained at hardcover level long after the paperback release. In a conversation I recall with the people from Fictionwise, long ago, they said that they had to approach the publishers’ reps about getting them to lower the prices, and it was like pulling teeth to ever get them to do it. (That $20 e-book thing I linked above? It was from 2010, right before the advent of agency pricing, and they were still doing it!) I go into more detail about the publishers’ frustrating obstinacy here.

    The publishers were happy with print book distribution. They didn’t want to rock the boat. But their fiddling while Rome burned left a vacuum in the market. And Jeff Bezos saw it and swooped in to fill it. Do you remember how pundits thought he was crazy, coming out with a $400 e-ink reader when no one had ever yet been able to make a successful e-reader? But he took that risk, and then he reaped the rewards. And he pretty much single-handedly created the current successful e-book market, in which books can be had cheaply and easily (to say nothing of the opportunities for self-publishing which even as recently as ten years ago was just a way to throw money away on vanity).

    And the publishers didn’t like this. They imposed agency pricing, and virtuously promised agency pricing meant that they could see to it there was price parity between paperbacks and e-books. As if the only thing keeping them from doing so had been Amazon’s price controls, and they hadn’t had ten years of opportunities to do just that.

    It’s basically the story of “The Little Red Hen” writ large. Amazon planted the grain, grew the seed, harvested the seed, milled the flour, and baked the bread while the publishers sat around on their fat asses. Now the publishers suddenly want to eat the bread.

    So, yes, I’m angry at the publishers, and delighted to see them get what’s coming to them. I’ve been reading e-books since 1998, and extremely frustrated for most of that time watching publishers do as little as they possibly could to promote them. When Amazon came in and started selling e-books at more reasonable prices, it was like watching the Berlin Wall come down all over again.

    And no, Amazon is far from perfect. Some of their business practices (such as their DRM platform lock-in, or the way they bought MobiPocket and then killed the planned Mobi e-reader app for iOS) continue to leave a bad taste in my mouth. And bookstores are finding it increasingly hard to compete against Amazon’s on-line sales.

    But disruption and innovation is just the way that the world works. Twenty years ago, Barnes & Noble and Borders killed off a lot of mom-and-pop bookstores. Now Amazon’s killed off Borders and Barnes & Noble is ailing. Sooner or later, something else will come along and kill off Amazon. I’ll close with a quote from Heinlein, that is just as true today as it was in 1939 when he wrote it:

    There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.

  9. Juli Monroe // June 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm //

    @Chris and Paul, you go! I’d love to hate Amazon for so many reasons, but I can’t. They are still the best game in town for e-books–both for readers and for authors, and I’m both. I’d love to love B&N instead, but they keep making bone-headed mistakes.

    Chris, I’ve been reading e-books for as long as you have, and your comment could have been written by me–same frustrations for just as long. Ah well, technology and time march on.

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