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Globalisation hits publishing

4 July 2005

Sad news about redundancies and an Australian bookshop chain going bust show how the way books are sold is changing. This will affect everyone, from writers right down through the book chain to readers.

In the UK HarperCollins have just announced that they will be slimming down their sales force by seven, hopefully mostly through voluntary redundancy. This will take the field sales force for this large publisher down from 16 to nine. Penguin UK went through a similar exercise in March, again with the loss of seven jobs, merging their children’s and adult sales forces.

Big publishers are taking this step in order to benefit from economies (it is extremely expensive to keep a rep on the road) made possible by increased central buying on the part of the bookshop chains. The chains are moving to central buying in order to force through more discounts at group level to support their very competitive promotions. If you as a book-buyer are beginning to get the impression that the chains all feel the same, because they’re all carrying the same 3 for 2 promotion as each other, you’d be right.

Not everyone thinks this is the right way to go. Reducing your sales force and thinking you can sell through wholesalers may be a very bad strategy. One independent bookshop manger commented that: ’The influence of reps is wide-reaching. If you’ve got a longstanding relationship with a rep, they can push your case in getting author events and selling lots more copies of their books.’ But economies of scale and cutbacks in sales forces mean that even the biggest publishers have given up selling directly to most independent bookshops; they just don’t have the manpower to do so. For authors this is a deeply worrying trend, as big publishers deal with big chains and both focus more and more on large promotions and bestselling authors, freezing everyone else out of the action.

Meanwhile in Australia the bankruptcy of Collin Booksellers, with 23 stores across the country, shows that, once you’ve figured out what to do, it’s essential to do it quickly and change with the market. In the sixties Collins opened up stores in shopping centres and their business boomed, but in the current decade they have been outsold by their competitors’ superstores. It’s the same picture as in the States, where Borders and others have made the smaller shops, including many independents, uncompetitive. But the net effect is fewer bookshops and more power concentrated in the hands of fewer big groups, both booksellers and publishers. Books, like other businesses, are suffering from globalisation.