Friday, 2 September 2011

Changes afoot in British book retail

When the UK arm of Borders went into administration, there was a lot of speculation about whether that was representative of people's changing attitudes to books and reading in general, whether the problems were entirely apart from reading and literature and solely down to Borders as a company. Regardless of what the cause was, attention soon shifted to Waterstones and whether its fate would be the same.

Earlier in the year, it looked tragically as though people were right and that Waterstones was in trouble but, instead, it was bought out and lived to read another day.

Today, the BBC reported that Waterstones was dropping its 3-for-2 deal that has arguably been its most notable feature for many years. This might seem incidental (and probably is if you aren't living in the UK...sorry about that...) but I think its an interesting indication of how those who run such a huge bookseller perceive readers' buying patterns and, maybe, how they think they're changing.

Why the change? The question seems to be this: would you rather have a book shop where books individually were more expensive but where you could get a 'free' book as a reward for buying two OR would you rather have a book shop where everything was cheaper and you could decide how much to buy based on that instead? Perhaps '3-for-2' favours only those that want three books at the time they happen to be in the shop or those that just can't resist the lure of a free book...

And that is where I turned myself from my initial reaction ("What?! But why would they do something so heinous?!") to something much more sensible. I love getting three books for the price of two but it would be nice to be able to pop into Waterstones and buy just one book for £3 instead of £7.99 and without feeling as though I was missing out in some way by not spending another £7.99 to get an extra!

I also think that this change might help get more people into reading - the 3-for-2 appeals to the more prolific reader but may be at the expense of the occasional reader. More people might be more likely to pick up a book if they could find just one thing that they fancied at a reasonable price. If that turns out to be true, that can only be a good thing!

What about the authors? An interesting point is raised in the article I read on the BBC website and how this decision might impact upon new and/or up-and-coming authors. Many people (me among them) when browsing away some time among the 3-for-2 stands, pick two that either they knew they wanted or have heard of and use the third as an opportunity to go a little left of the field and pick something that they've never heard of but just like the look of. After all, it's free, right? It's likely that those very same authors are those whose publishers aren't going to be helping their books stay at the cheaper end of the proposed new pricing structure and will lose out. That's definitely a shame, if it turns out to be the case.

Can this change help Waterstones in its continuous battle against the internet and eBooks? Let's hope so!

To those of you in the UK: what do you think? Glad to see the back of the tempting '3-for-2' stickers in favour of the chance to snap up some bargains or mourning the loss of the wild card freebie already? Do you think it will get more people reading?