By Roger Tagholm
LONDON: A shadow hangs over the aisles this year and if it’s not made up of volcanic ash this time, the consequences could be even more worrying for British publishers. The shadow is called Waterstone’s whose fate is of concern to almost everyone at Earls Court. At the moment, the chain’s founder Tim Waterstone and his Russian investor partner Alexander Mamut have until 20 April to present their bid for the beleaguered chain. They are in a strong position since Publishing Perspectives understands they are the only bidders and can thus negotiate the price down and down.
But here’s what is worrying British publishers: the extent of the likely shop closures. Former Borders UK CEO Philip Downer, who now carries out general retail consultancy and blogging at frontofstore.org , believes as many as 200 shops could close. “It needs to come down to a sustainable base of around 100 stores. They need to get out of the malls for a start. People who go to malls don’t buy books, they buy fashion. One of the problems they face is that once you cut down your backlist you lose a chunk of your customer base.”
Currently, there are 297 stores and such a closure programme would be unprecedented in UK bookselling. But as the internet continues its inexorable erosion of bricks and mortar, he isn’t alone in thinking that this is the inevitable consequence. A former Waterstone’s head office staffer, now working overseas but here at the fair, believes even that figure isn’t high enough.
Here’s a thought. Should bookstores be given preferential rent to help them survive against the online sellers? Before the UK’s coalition government introduced its harsh cuts, certain publishers used to receive Arts Council grants. Why not bookshops too? Given that the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron likes to talk about ‘the big society’ and the value of local communities, could it not be argued that local bookshops are key building blocks of just the kinds of local communities he likes to see? That, of course, is to introduce difficult questions of the free market versus intervention, but with Switzerland re-introducing fixed prices for books, such issues are very much in the air.