It seems not a week goes by without some important book retailing news going down in the UK: first came the announcement that James Daunt (the man responsible for the successful chain of London independent bookshops that bear his name) had been appointed as head of the faltering Waterstone’s chain. Then came the announcement that this year’s National Booksellers Award was presented to a supermarket. Now, The Book Depository, the online shop beloved of cheapskate readers around the world, has been sold to Amazon.
Since the revelation The Book Depository has been working hard to dispel the notion that the purchase will have any effect on their service. On Twitter the company responded to a flurry of tweets from worried customers assuring them it was ‘business as usual’: the company has ‘no plans to change the shipping policy’ and will ‘continue to operate independently’.
In the UK this news has been greeted with alarm for its potential impact on a company proudly championed as an innovative British independent bookseller. The notion that the Book Depository represents the face of independent bookselling might come as a surprise if you’re an Australian familiar with our recent debates about online bookselling and the problems posed by The Book Depository to our local booksellers (with regard to GST and free shipping in particular). In the UK though, where the recession is having notable effects on retail generally, The Book Depository is regarded as a British success story: a plucky David rather than a greedy Goliath. And, with the exception of some dissenting voices – notably offshore independent booksellers, like our own – customers have seen it in these terms too: ‘I liked you better than Amazon :(‘ tweeted one customer after the announcement.
One reason for this attitude is that The Book Depository has always made the most of its accessibility; not just in the obvious sense of existing only online but also in offering customers the ultimate in transparent online retail: no false promises about availability, no registration to purchase, no shipping costs. The Book Depository credits its success to a ‘long tail’ strategy of providing its customers over six million titles (selling ‘less of more’ rather than ‘more of less’) and the slow creep of their positive word of mouth. Two words in particular: ‘free’ and ‘shipping’. For this reason alone it is well loved by its users, and celebrated as an online retailer that serves customers, not its own ends.
Of course, if this were the reality it would make rather poor business sense. According to an article in the Guardian dissecting the details of the acquisition, the annual turnover of The Book Depository has almost doubled in the past year (to £120 million). In 2009 the company could boast of doing at least fifty percent of its business with offshore customers. In 2010 The Book Depository received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for International Trade.
The takeover announcement disrupts this idea that the Book Depository is, or can remain, a customer-driven enterprise. After all, selling your business to the company that already has 70 per cent of the market is not going to serve the best interests of customers (no matter how many chipper ‘no plans to change!’ tweets are made). The UK’s Office of Fair Trading will investigate the deal, particularly whether the merger could produce ‘a substantial lessening of competition’ in the UK book market.
How the buyout might affect The Book Depository’s offshore market is anyone’s guess. The more conceptual problem here is the misapprehension by customers (and retailers) that bookstores anywhere, of any size, will be any more independent from the global retail market than any other industries – it’s always business as usual.