Thursday, November 15, 2007

BorderStones: More Cheaper Books For Everyone!

Thanks to Jean Dark & Tim Goodwin of Libra Aries Books (Cambridge’s independent, alternative bookshop on Mill Road) for this guest post about generic corporate high street chain bookstores and how their promise of “more cheaper books for everyone” is transforming the entire book industry. The process mirrors the changes that have overtaken the grocery trade in the past few decades, which many are now starting to question.

Impact On Independent Bookshops

As a specialist bookshop, Libra Aries is relatively unaffected by the rise of BorderStones. For a general independent bookshop, like Browne’s was, the consequences are more dire. We will focus on just three specific trading practices adopted by BorderStones in their relentless pursuit of market share.

Trade rates

The industry standard trade rate offered to independent bookshops by publishers & distributors is 30 – 35% discount on the cover price. In recent years BorderStones have negotiated / imposed a blanket trade rate of 50% for themselves. This enables chains to offer reductions on newly published books which independents are unable to match.

Sale Or Return

BorderStones buy much of their stock on a “Sale or Return” basis: the publisher is obliged to accept the return of any unsold books within a certain time, usually three months. Independent bookshops pay up front for the books on their shelves; they lack the economic clout to persuade publishers to, in effect, lend them books for three months.

3 for 2

A recent phenomenon in bookselling is the “3 for 2” promotions offered by BorderStones. This sounds like a good way to buy baked beans, but… books?! “3 for 2” equates to a 33% discount on the cover price: BorderStones are retailing books at the industry standard wholesale price.

Impact On Independent Publishers

The replacement of general independent bookshops by BorderStones and more cheaper books seems to benefit the reader. But consider the impact of BorderStones on independent publishers, who have a long term symbiotic relationship with independent bookshops. The demise of small publishers limits the diversity of books available. This is particularly alarming given that traditionally independent publishers have given voice to radical, marginal, and dissenting ideas. We will look again at the same three trading practices from the independent publisher’s perspective.

Trade rates

Independent publishers were already working on slender profit margins before the imposition of preferential 50% trade terms. For a small scale independent publisher, this level of trade rate is untenable. Those who comply face the bitter sweet delights of national distribution and financial ruin. Those who refuse banish themselves to the dwindling hinterland of independent bookshops as their only retail outlets.

Sale Or Return

“Sale or Return” is a timebomb for the independent publisher. Increased investment in larger print runs to satisfy an initial demand is likely to be followed three months later by crates of returned stock, often shop-soiled.

3 for 2

A little known fact: publishers pay BorderStones to have their books featured in “3 for 2” promotions! This really is a remarkable scam. The big publishers can readily afford to grease the wheels of commerce with a little extra promotional budget. But for the independent publisher, the dilemma is stark: lost sales due to lack of exposure, or reduced profit margins and pay for the privilege of it.


We’ve outlined a few of the ways in which what is happening now in book retailing echoes what happened in the grocery trade with the rise of the ubersupermarket. This simplified picture omits any discussion of the roles of distributors, agents, authors, printers, remainder bookshops, and the Internet.

It doesn’t get any better. In 2005 The Booksellers Association, an august professional body said to represent the interests of bookshops in the UK, gave an honorary industry award to supermarket giant, Tesco.

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