Could Christmas 2008 be the worst in living memory for the book industry? Quite possibly. The industry has been slipping and sliding around like an iceskater with an ear infection for years, but the recession and the subsequent collapse of the Woolworths Group has the whole thing teetering on the brink of disaster.
Like most entertainment peddlers, the book industry does a huge proportion of its trade in the run-up to Christmas. Unfortunately, the recession means that, in general, people just aren't spending any money. Recent feedback from book shops suggests that while footfall is still quite high, few shoppers are actually getting their purses out.
It's not all down to the recession of course. Major retailers have long piled high the celebrity blockbusters to the detriment of other books. If you want the new Jamie Oliver, Dawn French or Alan Carr you won't have trouble finding a copy or a few hundred at your local Waterstones. (You might actually need to move a pile of them to get through the door.)
Trouble is, this tactic has somewhat backfired. In the current climate no-one wants to pay upwards of £18.99 for a book, so the major retailers and publishers have had to slash prices. At Amazon, Jamie Oliver is down from £25 to £9.99 (60% off), while Dawn French and Alan Carr are down from £18.99 to £7.97 (58% off). Factor in the retailer and distributor discounts, relatively high glossy hardback production costs and other overheads, and the publishers can't be making a huge profit.
The most surprising discount I've seen so far this Christmas was on my latest trip to Poundland for padded envelopes, where I saw the Top Gear Annual 2009 selling for - obviously - a quid. That's a high-profile recent release that has been remaindered, probably for less than cost, BEFORE Christmas has even arrived.
The collapse of the Woolworths Group has also caused huge headaches. Woolworths, which went into administration last week, owns distributor EUK, which in turn owns Bertram Books. EUK supplies books to Tesco, Morrisons, Zavvi and others. Bertram, along with Gardners Books, supplies much of the rest of the industry. EUK is in administration, supermarket shelves aren't being replentished, and major publishers have stated that they expect to write off hundreds of thousands of pounds. At Tonto we don't currently trade through EUK, but there must be several independent publishers that will lose large sums of money as a result of this.
Bertram seems to be a well-run business, and officially it continues to trade "as normal", although it's future does lie in the hands of the administrators, who are seeking a buyer. We do about a third of our trade through Bertram. Some major publishers have stopped supplying Bertram. That doesn't seem a sensible way of helping the business survive. In technical terms, if Bertram went down we would be pretty much knackered. Hopefully that won't happen.
The unfortunate result of all of this for Tonto is that we sell less books and face some uncertainty over payment for those we do sell. If anything positive can be taken out of this it's the hope that the industry will completely rethink the archaic way it operates. And there is the positive note for book buyers that are loads of bargains available this Christmas. Non more so than in our fantastic recession-busting Christmas Stocking Filler promo with ALL of our 2008 titles slashed to just £4.99 with free UK p&p for a few days only. Why not go there now?
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