Who killed publishing?

Many editors are asked – as part of the exercise in box ticking laughingly referred to as the acquisitions process: ‘Is this a Tesco or an Asda book? Smiths Travel? Or a Waterstone's book?

Inexperienced editors attempt to answer the question "is this a Waterstone's book?' honestly, not realising it is a trick question. The only thing to do with a Waterstone's book is to take it outside and shoot it.

The country's biggest book chain has become—in many publishing houses—code for an unpublishable book.

It is bizarre that the same publishers who have spent years in a collusive relationship with supermarkets driving down the average selling price of books publicly despair that they cannot get the support from the trade for anything but the most nakedly commercial projects.

Footfall is driven by a small number of must-have books. These may only account for 15-20% of sales but they are crucial to getting the punters into the shops. If those books are available down the road at half the price then that is where the customers will go— and publishers' lack of understanding of that meant Waterstone's key bad decision - to compete on price with the supermarkets - was forced on it by publishers. It was a battle they were never going to win.

We now have the truly depressing spectacle of books (just like cheap sofas) being on permanent, 365 days a year sale.

Supermarkets and heavy discounting has delivered high volume sales but has seriously, perhaps terminally, damaged the high street and that in turn has seen a terrible decline in carriage trade books—books for Radio 4 listeners: who are now, in the Jordanised world of the modern conglomerate a hard-to-reach niche.

The pursuit of volume is driven by an obsession with market share. In a mature business like publishing there are few opportunities for real growth and profits are broadly stable. That means that the gung ho c.e.o. who wants to show her corporate bosses how well she is doing has no real choice but to go for market share, despite the fact that everybody knows shifts in market share are mostly a question of who has that year's Stephenie or Stieg.

Publishers have rushed to sell their goods more cheaply and in the process have done irreparable damage to the high street, severely damaged the upper end of the market, reduced consumer choice, done lasting harm to the books brand as a whole, oh and shot themselves and their authors in the wallet. Clever.

There is though a silver lining, the Rebel Alliance aka the Independent Publishers Guild and no-discount bookshops like Foyles, have focussed on the top end of the market and have steadily built profits and grown into the space vacated by their bigger rivals. Perhaps that is the real point of this period of transition: big is stupid—the age of the conglomerate is over.