Skip to Content

Changes in the book trade 1


Bookselling | Changes in the book trade

The current situation in the book trade is one of rapid change. It's important for writers to understand what is happening as it will impact on their own chances of getting their work published and how it will be published. This new series will look at the changes in the book trade, with a different focus each week. First, where books are heading and what changes are taking place at the sharp end of the book trade - the bookselling world.


There have been major changes going on in the bookselling world as the chains become bigger. In the US they are already well-established, with large numbers of superstores across the country. In the UK Waterstone's takeover of Ottakars in 2006 means that it now dominates UK bookselling. But Waterstone's has its own problems and the chain's like-for-like sales declined by 4.1% for the year to 28 April, to pick up again for Christmas. Perhaps surprisingly in relation to general retail gloom, the UK chains had a good Christmas.

Elsewhere, Borders has been sold to Luke Johnson, chairman of Channel 4, because of problems faced by its US parent company. It's reassuring to know that at the time of the takeover Johnson had this to say: 'Books are one of the cornerstones of civilisation. They are where potentially all of human knowledge is set down. They are an ancient technology which is entirely valid today, despite the internet.'

On the independent booksellers' front, the decline in numbers has been inexorable, from 1,562 independents in the UK in 2005, to 1,483 in 2006 and 1,422 in 2007. Those that survive might be doing better though, as sales through independents have grown by 2% in volume and 10% in value over that period. The 10% suggests independents are successfully selling books at a better margin, ie less discounted, than before. A funding initiative by the French government will help French independents survive. In the US the picture is quite gloomy, although the shakeout has meant that surviving indies have found their niche and are now more likely to survive.

The Harry Potter effect

Last year saw the biggest one-day international sale of any book in history with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As the doors were thrown open at midnight on Friday 26 July 2007 in 10,000 shops across the planet, we were witnessing a global phenomenon.

In the US 12 million copies were ordered in advance and 325 million Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide, only 21 million of them in the UK. In Germany 1.2 million copies of the hardback were sold in English. The five Harry Potter films to date have already grossed $3.5 billion (£1.7 billion) and the books have been translated into 65 languages, showing that it's a global audience, and also that books are part of a wider international entertainment business.

Author Celia Brayfield put her finger on it in The Times:

'the publishing business has become a small adjunct to the global entertainment industry, a tiny fragment in the worldwide economy of screen, media and information... The role of a publisher has been reduced to sieving the primordial soup of writing for some viable blob of artistic matter that these risk-averse wealth creators can culture into a planet-buster.'


The Harry Potter saga shows that the book world has changed for good, and not in ways that necessarily make sense in relation to the simple equation of writer, book and reader. Discounting is a problem for publishers and also for authors. For instance the British supermarket chain Asda sold the new Harry Potter for £5, although the published price was £17.99. This means both the chain and the author get very little return on it, although the publisher, having refused to discount the book, made a handsome profit.

Prices like this are much less than independent bookshops have to pay to stock the book in the first place, and they make it a huge loss-leader for the supermarkets. Bookshops simply cannot compete on price with supermarkets, with their deep pockets and their determination to see low prices as just part of the battle for market share. As Will Hutton wrote in the Observer: 'British competition rules permit supermarkets to wreck the book distribution networks so important to publishing.'

In the US it the price clubs have a similar discounting effect on book prices, and cream off sales of bestsellers, which used to be the icing on the cake for booksellers.

The irony therefore is that (and perhaps this can only be said definitively about the UK with its crazy discounting) the book with the biggest one-day sale in history has not made any money for many of those who are selling it. The Harry Potter saga shows how bookshops - both chains and independents - are squeezed by Amazon on one side and heavily discounted supermarkets on the other.

The underlying trend in bookselling across the world is to focus on bestsellers, rather than stocking a range of books. The result is that the pressure on other stock is greater than ever. This means that it's tougher for new authors to make their way on to the shelves, and it's also hard for published authors to make sure that their books stay in print.

Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage.

Changes in the Book Trade:

2 Publishing

3 Print on demand and the Long Tail

4 Self-publishing

5 Writers' routes to their audiences

6 Copyright under pressure

7 Creative Commons