Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Supermarkets...Good or Bad?

According to this report in The Bookseller, the supermarket chains now account for 20% of the UK book market. It has trebbled in the last five years, and the shares, not very surprisingly reflect the position of the chains - Tesco lead the way, with Asda and Sainsbury's huddling in second place.

It's traditional among authors to moan about the rising power of the supermarkets. But I'm not so sure. They may well be doing a lot of good.

I might be biased because my own book has been doing well at Asda - it has spent about six weeks now in their books chart.

But the supermarkets are doing two things that are really good.

One, they are making books really cheap. You'll pay less than £4 for a paperback in a supermarket, and that isn't just achieved by cutting the money going to publishers and authors (well, the author at least - they drive a hard bargain with the publisher). The supermarkets just don't need the same kind of margin that bookshops do - a 10p profit looks pretty good to Tesco, and is more than they make on a litre of milk, which weighs more, takes up more space and goes off after a couple of days as well. You don't need to know much economics to know that a cheaper a product gets, the more people buy it - and the more books get sold, the better for everyone.

Next, they introduce books to people in new settings. Most people go to the supermarket at least once a week. They can browse among the books, and occassionally find new things. We might like to imagine they'd spend an hour every week doing that at Waterstone's, but they truth is, they probably wouldn't.

For both reasons, the supermarkets are almost certainly increasing book sales in the UK.

Of course, there are some downsides.

They have a limited range, and they only stock a few books from the big publishers. The concentration of power is going to make it harder for new writers to break through.

And the publishers have become obsessed with them. When I was ghost-writing for Random House, all they cared about was 'what Tesco would think'. They even changed one writer's name becasue they didn't think Tesco would like what he was called. I thought they were being silly. Tesco would be happy with anything that sold, but they had become neutrotically obsessed with finding the perfect Tesco book.

But, that said, authors have to get out to where the books are. Personally, I'd love to be signing books and talking to customers and readers in Asda or Tesco. In fact, once we've got our aiport tour out of the way, I might make a 'supermarket tour' the Curzon Group project.

- Matt Lynn

1 comment:

  1. Anything that sells books is good. Sadly, it's always going to be hard for authors whose publishers lack the funding that the big publishers can use to promote titles. Publishers now buy their places in bookshop windows, buy their positions in the Bestselling lists, buy into the 3 for 2 and get one free offers, no doubt buy their promotions on amazon, and there are certainly TV channels that authors can pay to appear on... it is all about hype. That's true of everything, not just publishing. It's logical in a consumer society where money fuels everything. But it certainly makes life difficult for the little people! Was it every any different, I wonder?