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The biter bit

6 February 2006

Across the English-speaking world, the fate of bookselling chains is inextricably bound up with that of authors, although the Internet is now offering a real alternative in terms of reaching the market. In Canada and Australia, unstable and monopolistic book chains have adversely affected book sales and readers' access to books. In the US the situation is more stable, but ruthless competition between the chains' superstores continues to drive more and more independents out of business.

In the UK the Competition Commission continues its investigation into the proposed Waterstone's takeover of Ottakar's, but the surprise news this week was of a possible bid for Waterstone's itself from the private equity group Permira. Some city analysts thought this was unlikely though, as Waterstone's is regarded as efficiently run but suffering from lack of investment - the kind of investment which Permira would be unlikely to want to make.

In the meantime the Commission is about to publish crucial evidence this week, in the shape of Waterstone's and Ottakar's own arguments, on its website The debate over whether it would be better for the book trade if the takeover went ahead, or if it was stopped, continues to rage.

The Society of AuthorsThe British authors’ organization, with a membership of over 7,000 writers. Membership is open to those who have had a book published, or who have an offer to publish (without subsidy by the author). Offers individual specialist advice and a range of publications to its members. Has also campaigned successfully on behalf of authors in general for improved terms and established a minimum terms agreement with many publishers. Recently campaigned to get the Public Lending Right fund increased from £5 million to £7 million for the year 2002/2003. Regularly uses input from members to produce comparative surveys of publishers’ royalty payment systems.' submission reiterates authors' views that the merger 'would result in a significant lessening of competition in both the market for books and the market for bookselling services.' Faced with the threat of one large bookselling chain with no competition and nothing to stop it imposing whatever terms it wished, publishers largely agree. Profile argued that if Waterstone's buying teams did not like a book, it already 'cannot be published successfully'.

The Competition Commission acts to prevent monopolies, but its main task is to protect the customer's position. There is a possibility that it will conclude that one big chain would be in a position to offer the best prices for the customer, especially in competition with the Internet. Bookish considerations such as the range of choice available in bookshops, and authors' access to their audience are not primary considerations in a world where economics rule and the customer is king.