Bookshops on the Defensive

First a few facts about the Danish book business.

From 1837 until 2001 all Danish book prices were fixed. The publishers determined the price, and books could only be sold through bookshops.

In 2001 the book branch was forced to give up this monopoly and leave the centralised price system over some years. Since January 2011 all book prices have been free.

But now that a global recession and a steady trickle of ebooks threaten the business, eight of nine bookshops (chains, I assume) want fixed prices again – at least for a period of five to six months after publication.

And to let you know what kind of prices we can expect, let me tell you that with the current free prices, one of the brandnew crime novels that is on my wish list costs from $ 36 to $ 55.

The latest Jussi Adler-Olsen police procedural (from 2010): prices range from $ 18 to $ 55.

My reaction to the survey: they can do as they wish, even if we have two stable incomes in this family, we cannot afford to buy more than a few of the Danish books we want to read anyway.

What do you think: is their strategy smart or should they seek other ways to survive?

Link to the Danish article which inspired this blog post.

An earlier blogpost about two Danish writers´ attitude to ebooks, Danish writers refute the ebook.

About Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

I am a Danish teacher. In my spare time I read, write and review crime fiction.
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17 Responses to Bookshops on the Defensive

  1. Dorte – What an interesting question! My first (and probably very unsophisticated) reaction is that that fixing prices is not an effective way to compete in today’s market. I’m not familiar with the way things work in Denmark, but if they work in a way that resembles the U.S., then consumers can buy books from a wide, wide number of resources these days. I think that what may happen is that consumers may simply abandon higher-priced booksellers, even if it means they must wait on certain books or go without those books. I may of course be very wrong, though…

  2. Are the Danish books any cheaper on amazon? If so, that’s the way I’d go.

  3. Norman says:

    Dorte- The Net Book Agreement, which had started in 1900, was declared illegal and not in the public interest in the UK in 1997. Since then hundreds of independent bookshops have closed, and it is ironic that one of the first non-British firms to enter our market after the demise of the Net Book Agreement was Borders.
    We may regard books as something special, but to legislators there is no difference between books or food. We have a wide range of supermarkets selling food [and books] and we have a wide range of booksellers.
    It is a very long time since I worked in the retail trade, but I remember that small shops banded together to by items in bulk, or made arrangements with wholesalers to buy at prices that allowed them to compete with the larger stores. These are tough times for any retail business and some special protectionism for book sellers will not work. There are no easy solutions for retail in the internet age.

  4. Maxine says:

    The fall of the NNEB led to the rise of Waterstones, the death of the independent bookshop and the failure of the “mid list” author to get pubilshed (ie people telling good stories rather than celebs/trash at one end and the “literary” at the other). popular fiction does well but we can see from the bestseller lists that quality is often poor (for example very few of the crime fiction bestsellers are books I’d want to read as they are written at idiot level and are mostly inventive descriptions of death and killing). Books were, of course, more expensive then, but I think the choice was wider in any given bookshop.
    What was even more devastating to the conventional bookselling and publishing business was Amazon of course. That made the NNEB collapse pale into insignificance for booksellers, and publishers feel the squeeze as Amazon set their terms and now have started publishing themselves. E-books are all part of that – booksellers have simply failed to adapt and enthuse about the devices, leaving it to the likes of Amazon again and electronic stores rather than bookshops waving the flag. Some publishers try to protect their digital properties by proprietary means, but many thankfully don’t and are DRM free, at least.
    In the main, though, publishers are still wedded to old ways of doing business, with geographical rights, Autumn/Spring lists and so on. They have in the main failed to adapt and use the power of the internet so others are doing it for them.
    When I look at the publisher’s price on a hardback book in the UK, it is usually nearly £20. One very rarely pays that – unless it is for a specialist or text book, in which case one can easily pay £50. (the textbook/educational market is another massive scandal of greed and exploitation).

    So there is no one answer. Basically, Amazon is here and everyone has to live with it. E-books are here and everyone has to live with them too. My view is join ’em don’t try to beat ’em. The market ultimately sets the price for books, and currently that is (in effect) Amazon not booksellers or publishers so far as popular fiction is concerned, unless the publishers form a price-fixing cartel to try to beat Amazon, which they did, and are now being taken to court as a result.

  5. Maxine says:

    PS when I spent my student vacations working in one of the UK’s best bookshops (no longer), each individual publisher would send round a “rep” a couple of times a year to deal with the shop – whether the book would be stocked and if so, at what discount the publisher would offer the bookseller. Seems so quaint and inefficient, in retrospect, though they were all men (not women) in suits and with company cars at the time.

  6. Margot: I am afraid their reaction is far more unsophisticated than yours. I think I have mentioned in an earlier post that one third of Danish readers read English books occasionally. Denmark is a peninsula, not an island, and the book branch will have to realize that if they don´t even try to offer books at reasonable prices, they won´t have any young readers left.

    Harvee: Amazon does not sell books in Danish (yet). My own solution is to read English books and use the local library.

    Norman: “These are tough times for any retail business and some special protectionism for book sellers will not work.” I agree. They will have to find other ways to cater for the interests of modern readers. Now I am not a good salesperson so don´t know how to save the ones that are worth saving, but as long as we had a tiny bookshop in our village, we supported the owner because he was a pleasant man and ever so service-minded. I enjoyed each and every visit to his shop so we made a habit of buying birthday presents there.

  7. Maxine: “… booksellers have simply failed to adapt and enthuse about the devices..” Yes, that is what I think about the current state of affairs in Denmark. And as the bookshops insist on dragging out stone-age methods, I don´t think they can be saved so much of my concern is also for mid-list writers who offer a good, traditional mystery and deserve to be read.
    And Amazon… well, I think I´d better stop because my love/hate relationship with the giant is a looong story.

  8. Patti Abbott says:

    I am not clear on why they were free not why they now will cost this much. The world continues to become inexplicable.

  9. Patti Abbott says:

    By free, do you mean all books are given out gratis or do you mean the bookseller can determine the price?

  10. Glad here in the USA it’s called ‘suggested retail.’ I think they might be shooting themselves in the foot.

  11. Patti: I mean the individual bookseller can determine the price. And prices from $ 30 and up are ´normal´ here though there is no reason why they should be as paperbacks are much cheaper in Sweden.
    Diane: I think you are right – and it´s not the first time they have done that.

  12. Kelly says:

    Oh my! That’s amazing! It brings to mind the struggles the music industry has had since music became available on the internet.

    I don’t have any solutions, but I’ve enjoyed seeing the comments here.

  13. kathy d. says:

    It all comes down to the rate of earnings in the book sales, the income and the profit margins. If booksellers sell a certain amount of books at a higher price and then they end up with a big inventory of books as not enough people are buying them, then they will lower the prices to sell them. It’s the market. Books have to be sold to bring in profits, and booksellers have to calculate what are the highest prices they can get away with and still sell enough to profit, pay their rent, their staff, etc.
    Over here, if books aren’t sold by publishers they go to booksellers that deal with remaindered items, i.e., a big inventory. Then the books are sold for less at Amazon or elsewhere. A bookseller in Indiana (which is where I notice many book distributors mention, so they must carry remaindered books) may offer books at cut prices through Amazon or Alibris or others.
    What I do now is try to use the library as much as possible (hard as they are not ordering as manty global books), look for used copies at Amazon’s used book seller entries at their website or look at Abe Books which sells used books. And then I wait for them to have used copies of a book.
    Or if I really want a book, I share the cost with friends and we all read it.
    It’s really ridiculous as bookstores are going to price themselves out of the market with high retail prices, and fewer people will buy the books.

  14. Kelly: the music industry is a good parallel. But there is no way you can ´protect´ Danish readers against the ebooks out there so they must try to find better ways.

    Kathy: “… then they end up with a big inventory of books as not enough people are buying them, then they will lower the prices to sell them.” Seems logic to you and me, but apparently not to the sellers here. Well, they have taken small steps to lower prices on paperbacks lately, but too late (at least for me). Like you, I buy plenty of used books, or I wait until the ebook price is low enough.

  15. kathy d. says:

    Amazon over here also sells remaindered and used books. I just saw a few for under a dollar. One just has to pay shipping costs. I check Abe, Alibris, Amazon and my library. I can wait for used copies. And I’m seriously going to ask some friends to chip in for books we share, like Indridason’s. I’ll try for Jussi Adler-Olsen’s second book in English. I just finished Mercy and I cried at the end, I’m such an unrepentant mush. Or for Elly Griffiths’, Yrsa Sigurdadottir’s and Asa Larsson’s newer books, I’ll see if friends and I can chip in and then share them, as the library isn’t coming through.

  16. Kathy: I can definitely also wait for used copies. Awesomebooks.com is my favourite because the shipping to Denmark is free if you choose two books or more.
    And what a great idea to share expensive books. But unless I count my 3 children who read the best of my pick I have no one around to share with.

  17. kathy d. says:

    Thanks to you I just went to Awesomebooks.com and found some books I could not find at other sites. And they ship free to the U.S. also with two or more book purchases. I’m in “awe.” I just wrote to them to ask what the qualifications are for the free shipping, new or used books, a price limit, etc.
    So thanks a lot.

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