Guest Post: A. J. Bishop, 'The Book-buyers Dilemma'

Being an avid reader means one is always interested in buying books. This is self-evident. However in the modern world, the problem isn't in the choice of books but in the choice of book sellers. The major players in this field are online shops, chain bookshops, independent book shops and (quite recently) supermarkets. There are pro's and con's to all outlets but - to readers of specific genres such as historical crime - the current market is in flux ... with the independent shops fighting a loosing battle. The main elements in book buying are choice and cost. Other - lesser - factors include availability and physicality; the latter I shall explain later.

In choice and cost, the internet market will win the general reader's money right from the start. Using the computer, we have the world's book supplies at one's fingertips. You want a title only printed in the States? Search Amazon.Com (for example) and you'll have a particular book ready for the purchase. There's three main drawbacks to t'internet book market; firstly, postage costs and shipping delays, problems or losses. Not terrible but annoying. Secondly, the limitations on browsing, not the site but the book "shelves". In a store, ones eyes are cast over many titles and, while looking for one author or title, your attention might be drawn to another name. On the internet, it's possible to browse but you can take hours and hours without finding anything that catches ones eye. Thirdly, the "physicality"; it might just be me but there's something about examining the cover art, reading through the back-cover blurb ... even dipping in and reading a paragraph or two. This just isn't possible online. In general, the internet is good for availability, accessability and cost. Bad for aimless yet satisfying browsing.

The chain bookstores are easy to find in any major town and great for popular titles but - for the genre reader - incredibly limited in "browsability" and availability. In theory, it's possible to order particular books from any branch ... but you can do that on the internet (possibly getting the book for cheaper). The main "up-sides" to chain bookstores are accessability and physicality but choice is limited and price isn't always good.

Supermarket book departments operate along similar lines - with attendant pro's and con's - as a chain bookstore but with a major hinderance - the choice. They will stock best sellers but overlook any (they see as) genre authors. For instance, the publishers of Lindsey Davis or Steven Saylor might've worked hard to get a good distribution deal with a big supermarket chain but the fan of roman crime fiction might search in vain for other, lesser broadcast names. Push comes to the shove, a supermarket is in business to sell, period. Buy cheap, sell masses. If the general public, while out buying their weekly supplies, aren't interested in an author then they will not see "different" titles on the shelves.

Independent stores - for my money - are a wonderland. They need to work hard to get the sales in any event; they have limited access to mainstream titles at a good price (thanks indirectly to the abrogation of the Net Book Agreement), they have a finite stocking resource and they have limited advertising and sales coverage. Their benefits are great, however. The physicality is massive. Just think of working your way through high stacks of shelves, squeezed to bulging with books, the sales assistant happy for you (they are usually reading something themselves) and always ready to chat, discuss and recommend. Wow! If you get a small bookshop which specialises in a genre, then you've hit paydirt! These might not have a particular title but they sure as hell will have one (or ten) which will attract your attention ... and money. They have drawbacks; first, they will have limited stock and, therefore, availability of particular titles. Secondly, the cost probably isn't the cheapest. After all, not only do they get a poor deal in stock-purchasing (again with the net discount agreement!) but they have staff and premesis overheads which eat into their total sales far more than the chain store.

So much for the current situation. So what am I getting at? I see nothing wrong with using the internet for particular titles - especially for struggling authors trying to get their work out to a wide readership. Chain bookshops have enough on their plate, slugging it out with supermarkets over celebrity semi-autobiographies and the latest diet/cook/excercise/lifestyle titles; they needn't worry about genre fans. I think readers - at the risk of stating the obvious - should devote their loyalty to the small, independent book shops. But, in return, the shops should speak out a bit more; not only do local interest events but put themselves out on the internet (generally speaking, this is an advertising world that's next to nothing in cost), look to attracting attention, not only from genre readers but the general public.

A short word about the Net Book Agreement farce. The background - the NBA was a British price fixing agreement between publishers and sellers that was started in 1900. In 1962, it was examined by the Restirictive Practices Court which decided it was of benefit to the industry (it meant that publishers could afford to print important - yet little known - authors with the profits from best sellers. In 1994 the Office of Fair Trading decided that the R.P. Court should review the NBA. After several big publishers and retailers lay low during the review, in March 1007 the Restrictive Practices Court ruled the NBA illegal.

Now this would seem A Good Thing to book buyers. Ah ... no. Well, at first it seemed good with book prices dropping. But it strengthened the hold on the market by chain bookstores, it meant supermarkets (which could negotiate bulk discounts and sell incredibly cheap) started to threaten even chain bookstores - and it severely affected the business for independent traders. As a result, it's easy to get "best sellers" ultra cheap anywhere but has driven genre readers to the world wide web.
A recent report commissioned by the Booksellers Association has shown that while the US has a lower avarage selling price than the UK, the UK - along with Sweden - "enjoys" lowest levels of profitability in sales. This is considered to be a direct result of the loss of the NBA. The moral of the story? Cheap books do not mean more sales. Odd, isn't it?