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.


9 thoughts on “The economics of bookselling, based on a Saturday experience

  1. I had a similar experience at Waterstones. I found one book that I really wanted but couldn’t come up with two more. I think I ended up buying three at full price.

  2. Maxine – I know exactly what you mean. I’m not sure why bookstores do that, either, to be honest. It certainly doesn’t really benefit the customer at all!

  3. Follow up on Alone in Berlin with Amazon (or whoever). My book of the year, 2009. I’ve lent it to a couple of other people and they were also blown away by it. It’s certainly a book that lingers long after the reading and one that I’ll almost certainly read again (and I rarely re-read). The fact that Fallada wrote it in one 24 day sitting is remarkable, though he never lived to see it in print, dying weeks before its publication. My review –

  4. I suspect most buyers are not as discerning and mathematically astute as your good self so the ‘3 for 2’ deal allows booksellers to rid themselves of titles they would not otherwise sell. I work near a big Borders store that does the ‘3 for 2’ thing all the time and I have lost count of the number of times colleagues come back to the office looking happy to have scored 3 books even though I know the same books are cheaper elsewhere. I have one colleague who buys 3 for 2 every couple of weeks and invariably says that only 1 or 2 of the books were worth reading but he doesn’t mind because he ‘feels like’ he’s getting a good deal. He is a marketing expert’s ideal customer while you Maxine are not because you dare look beyond the hype of the supposed deal.

  5. Bernadette’s right – it’s all psychology. It’s the same as the adverts that say ‘buy a sofa in our sale for £499 this week only, discounted from £999’. So, you think you’re buying a sofa and saving yourself £500, when actually you’ve spent £500, and you’d have saved £500 if you’d done nothing at all and put up with the perfectly good sofa you have already. (There’s a moral in here about sofas, but my mind is too vast/tired/confused to frame it).

  6. Your experience in the shop mirrors my own. It’s pretty sad because I would buy a lot more books if they were priced sensibly, at say £5. £9.99 for a paperback is ludicrous in this economic climate. I’m sad to see bookshops closing, but they are doing themselves no favours.
    I sometimes manage to get to Waterstones with my two children – the 3 for 2 offer works for us that way – we get a book each 🙂

  7. I have given up on any 3 for 2 offers for the same reason Maxine, pure economics but most readers won’t think this through and think they are getting a bargain. I just prefer to purchase the one book I need from Amazon et al and not be seduced into buying another one just in order to get a third which, half the time, I don’t really want anyawy!

  8. I have often felt the same thing! With the proviso that all of my 3-for-2 shopping is in England while traveling, and one does after all need novels, however mediocre…

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