Mass-market retailing changed publishing before the e-book
SNAZZY technology is a twist in a narrative already several chapters long.
Mass-market retailing has changed the publishing industry:
these days books are as likely to be found beside steaks and saucepans as they are to be bought in specialist stores.
The story turns on whether broader changes in bookselling will stifle literature.
Dan Brown will survive. Would Dante?
For most of the past century, governments across Europe protected book prices; many still do.
Even in America, apart from dime-store romances, few titles were sold outside bookshops.
But in the 1970s stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble applied a supermarket maxim to print:
pile them high and watch them fly.
Waterstones did the same thing in Britain and top titles started selling in the hundreds of thousands, even millions.
Just as book superstores forced out many independents,
so supermarkets and other mass retailers have since crowded the book chains.
In Britain, when price regulation was disbanded in 1997, supermarkets rushed in and now sell a quarter of all books, according to the way that Nielsen, a market-research outfit, calculates it.
Belgium and Finland mimicked this trend.
This has been good for readers:
in Britain the average price of a book has fallen by 15% since 2003, reckons BML Bowker, a book-marketing consultancy.
And demand has grown: consumers spend the same amount on books, so they must be buying more.
Those independent bookshops that survived the chain war in America and Britain have held sales and prices steady.
Meanwhile, mass retailers find books such a draw that they lure in customers by selling some titles at a loss.
Higher turnover should also be positive for publishers.
But mass retailers demand discounts of up to 60% for bulk orders, shrinking margins.
All sides prosper when books sell quickly.
But, unlike groceries, if books don't sell, retailers return them to the publisher—and do not pay.
So, when a book with a large print run flops, publishers end up with an expensive pile of recycling.
That is why some publishers have stopped doing new deals with the likes of Costco, an American warehouse retailer, which likes to order very large print runs.
Few people will mourn publishers;losses from increased price competition and new technology like e-readers.
The question is whether these trends undermine the quality of books which are being published, by breaking a business model that has let firms focus on variety and range.
Publishers have good reason to shiver at the decline of traditional bookshops.
To fund the discovery and promotion of new authors, they have relied on books that sell steadily over a number of years.
Yet mass retailers stock a few hundred new blockbusters.
At first sight there is no reason for concern.
New works are abundant—40% more titles came out in Britain in 2010 than in 2001.
But this obscures a starker trend: “mid-list” titles are selling in smaller numbers in America and Britain.
This matters for cultural life, because most literary fiction and serious non-fiction falls into that bracket and much of it could become uneconomical to publish.