Pile 'em high

Reluctant Capitalists: bookselling and the culture of consumption

Laura J Miller <em>University of

This book arrives just as the Competition Commission has given preliminary clearance to a possible takeover of the Ottakar's bookselling chain by HMV, owner of Waterstone's. Given the economic conditions of the book industry, it is surprising that the deal has been subjected to this much scrutiny. But the Office of Fair Trading, in choosing to refer it to the CC, took account of vehement opposition from publishers, and was particularly swayed by the views of members of the reading public. Waterstone's, it seems, is scarcely more popular among the bien-pensants than are giant supermarket chains. Why people might feel this antipathy, and how the rise of chain booksellers has affected consumers, are the subjects of Laura J Miller's study.

There are two aspects of Reluctant Capitalists that the reader should note before opening the pages. The first is that it is about US bookselling - but, as the Waterstone's/Ottakar's story has shown, the topics that Miller examines are current in the UK, too. The second is that Miller, assistant professor of sociology at Brandeis University, is offering a sociological analysis. When she writes: "Such a notion of literary merit needs to be made more problematic," she does not mean that literary merit is an intractable problem; she means that "it requires the particular analytical tools of an academic - me, for example - to explain literary merit". Nevertheless, her writing is generally clear, and her conclusions are sympathetic.

Miller narrates a history of bookselling in the United States, charting the rise of the chains from the creation in the 1960s of Waldenbooks and B Dalton, Bookseller (the latter given a name that the parent company thought, for some reason, soun-ded "English"). The descendants of those firms, Borders and Barnes & Noble, are now the largest terrestrial booksellers in the US, with the online retailer Amazon operating as a third significant presence in the market. In the UK, W H Smith dominated until the mid-1980s, when Waterstone's and Dillons started to expand as national, specialist bookselling chains. Ottakar's began to spread through market towns; Borders bought Books Etc in 1997 and opened US-style superstores; Amazon arrived the same year.

One thinks of the US as a liberal, unfettered market place, yet Miller's history shows that the UK book market has operated with fewer regulations - certainly since 1995, when the first abandonment of the Net Book Agreement permitted retailers to start selling books at discounted prices. There is discounting in the US, but it is restrained by UK standards. The US also has a piece of legislation called the Robinson-Patman Act, designed to prevent suppliers from giving preferen-tial terms to large customers. When US booksellers suspected publishers of defying the act, they took them to court. True, the booksellers lost; but one could not imagine such an action taking place in the UK. Independent booksellers on this side of the Atlantic get discounts of about 45 per cent, and just have to shrug their shoulders at the knowledge that their chain rivals may be getting terms, for bestselling titles, worth 20 percentage points more. Nor do US booksellers see so much damage done to their business by the supermarkets, which cream off the bestselling lines at highly favourable terms over here.

High discounts and the centralised buying policies of the chains have generated record-breaking sales for certain titles, which dominate storefronts and prompt the criticism that all bookshops look the same these days. Miller, whose sympathies clearly lie with smaller businesses, gives the chains credit for making a huge variety of books available in attractive environments. The chains say, with justification, that they sell a wider range of books than the independents could manage; but their claim that their greatest marketing efforts simply reflect what consumers want is another problematic issue.

Many people - I am among them - love buying books in these lavish emporia. However, we should be sceptical of the view that modern shopping is a delightful, empowering exercise of freedom. Miller describes the opposition of two cultural conventions: an old-fashioned, paternalistic one, by which an independent bookseller would "hand sell" appropriate titles to particular customers, and the free market that prevails today. The latter has just as many cultural determinants. For example, the bestseller lists at the moment are dominated by books featuring on the Richard and Judy Book Club: the choices of a small group of people at Channel 4.

That is one reason why many book buyers prefer idiosyncratic shops, and why they have become suspicious of Waterstone's as the chain has grown. Miller scarcely needs to tell us that our choices as consumers have consequences, and that we might want to do our best to ensure that independent bookshops stay in business. However, evidence before the Competition Commission shows that the chains are also having a tough time. Indeed, those of us who remember the days when W H Smith was the only national chain may feel that the likes of Waterstone's - even after it has swallowed a rival - are worth supporting, too.

Nicholas Clee is a former editor of the Bookseller