The economics of bookselling, based on a Saturday experience

Freeze I'm confused by the "3 for 2" ethos. I was walking past Waterstones yesterday (Saturday) and I noticed a big front-shop display of Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, a book in which I'm interested on the basis of good  reviews at Euro Crime (by Norman of Crime Scraps) and elsewhere. Looking at the book and a few pages, I was even more interested, so thought I would buy it ("support brick and mortar stores", I was thinking). There was a "3 for 2" sticker on the book – at which my heart sank slightly as I have so many vast piles of books at home – but, gamely, I looked at the price so I could look for two other books of roughly similar. £9.99! Wow.

Undeterred, I searched the crime fiction shelves. I was mildly intrigued by Twisted Wing by Ruth Newman, a debut novel priced at £6.99 with an ecstatic blurb quote by Sophie Hannah. But, try as I might, I could not find a third book which I want to read soon. I looked for several books on my list, which were either not in stock or not on "3 for 2" offers. If I want to buy a book by George Pelecanos, for example, I can buy only one title in the "3 for 2" but no others. All the "3 for 2" books I found in half an hour were either books I'd read or books I didn't want to read. So, I went home without buying anything.

I checked out the same books on Amazon. Alone in Berlin is £4.98 in a Penguin modern classics edition. Twisted Wing is £4.18 in the same edition as on the Waterstones shelf. (I'm also keener on the book since getting home, having read Sharon Wheeler's review at Reviewing the Evidence.)  Other books I had looked at (not in the "3 for 2" offer) were  £2 or £3 cheaper than their in-store counterparts.

Freeze If I had wanted 3 particular books which Waterstones had in stock and on "3 for 2", the price would have been roughly the same as Amazon. But this was not the case, so I do much better by buying the books I want singly or in a personally selected bundle, at a discount price each, on Amazon.

I am not a book publisher or a bookseller, so I don't really know why all this foot-shooting is going on. My understanding is that the bookseller charges the publisher a premium for being included in the "3 for 2" offer, which allows the bookseller to offset the loss by selling at a discount and the publisher gains by selling more books via front-of-store promotions than if the same title was just stuck on the shelves. But aren't they both missing out here? If Waterstones sold all their books at, say, £2 off cover price, without forcing their customers to take 3 instead of 1, wouldn't they sell more books overall? I would have bought 3 or 4 books yesterday if that had been the case, whereas in fact I bought none because I could not create a bundle using "3 for 2",  and the prices of buying the 4 books in which I am interested worked out as about double what I would pay for the same books on Amazon. I want to support High Street bookshops, but not that much – because I can't help feeling that this pricing policy is not in my (the customer's) best interests based on personal choice/market forces, but rather is the result of some deal between retailer and publisher as to what I should be reading.

Advertisements