Saturday, December 01, 2007

That German Bookshop

I am still trying to come to terms with the extraordinary difference between bookshops in Munich and London that I witnessed at the weekend and mentioned in the post below. What is it? Why is it that there should be so many more people in one than the other?

To start to answer the question one important yet stark difference between the two should be mentioned. In Munich, no offers. None. No three for two. No half price. No buy one get one half price. No £8 off. No £4 off. No displays in the front of house with This Months's Book of the Month. Everything is Cover Price.

So why, when the chains are convincing everyone that all these spectacular offers bring customers into the shop and have driven sales for the last ten years, do we get a bookshop in Munich with three times the custom a Hatchards or Borders would get but with no offers? Does this mean that if High street stores here stopped discounting there would be no customers?

Matthew and I were discussing this and we decided it was a question of value. I know it's going to sound elitist and I know there's going to be publishers and chain sellers exclaiming just how much they all love books. I'm sure there are lots who genuinely do. But I don't think you can escape the fact that publishers and booksellers have devalued books in the last ten years in this country. By their endless discounting and offers they have put the book in the same catagory as tins of beans and fish fingers in the mind of the public. Books are now things to be bought on the cheap and the great tragedy is that the process cannot be reversed. They have lost their aura, as Walter Benjamin would call it and have just become another boring bit of consumer tat.

Books are precious and bookselling should be regarded seriously and preciously. Another interesting fact about German bookselling is that you have to train for 4 years to become one, much like a librarian. It's a proper career to be taken seriously and compared to Waterstone's recent decision to change their employment structure that now makes it increasingly difficult to move out of the lowest wage scale is incredibly telling about the state bookselling has been allowed to descend to in this country.


  1. Totally agree. In the last three weeks I have seen:

    Roberto Bolano's Savage Detectives in the crime section

    Several copies of books about Sharon Osbourne, but none about George Orwell (I picked up DJ Taylor's Orwell bio today in Kingston, putting an end to this particular streak of misery. I understand that Sharon sells, but it's George F%cking Orwell here... someone should stock it)

    Six till staff and counting who have neither heard of nor stocked the second volume of Paris Review interviews

    This is all in the last three weeks of me going into either Waterstones or Books, etc branches. It's diabolical. These are not particularly niche or unusual books, but the large chains aren't up to scratch when providing them.

    Which I guess is where the likes of your good selves come in.


  2. I love books and I don't go into most chain bookshops because they are horrible places. Mainly it's the bad shelving and bad lighting and bad layout and ugly design and (for some reason, almost always, and it really bothers me) icky flooring. Underpaid, unmotivated, poorly-trained staff who know nothing about books doesn't help. And a product that is sold in a shit shop is by implication shit.

    But I don't think that discounting is devaluing books. I think that discounting books is just one aspect of our consumerist, throwaway culture where everything has to be cheap cheap cheap so that we can have as much of everything as possible. I don't think it makes logical sense to single out books. We have just got greedy. If books are more expensive, I don't think that'll make people value them more. They'll just go find cheaper forms of entertainment.

    Anyway, to return to the theme of discounting, what happens is that in the pursuit of cheapness, costs have to be cut somewhere. So for example, if you want to discount books you might recoup your costs by hiring less experienced staff and paying them less well, and putting the books in a cheaply-fitted, badly-maintained shop.

    So the price we pay for a cheap society is bad service, unpleasant shops, unmotivated workers, and people with pay packets so small they can't afford to buy books anyway, not unless they are discounted of course. Vicious circle anyone?

    In conclusion, everything should really be a fair price, and we should all be content with having less. Right. Like that's really going to happen.

  3. I do think that discounts tend to diminish the "value" of any product: last year's model, passé, no longer in trend, poor quality, shop going out of business. All these things do not really apply to good literature, except for those books that really are passé instead of making the transition to becoming classic.

    If a book has a set asking price, it is usually the price the book was worth upon printing. Everyone knows that the mark up on books and music is minimal in Germany. I don't know if it is the same thing in England. The German mark up is set at about 25-30% which is not much for retail. So, those who go into the business do it out of love for literature, are, as you mentioned, very knowledgeable, and at best, earn a modest income.

  4. I wonder if it isn't more to do with demographics and geography and urban planning? A large popular bookshop in the heart of a compact central shopping district in the regional capital of a prosperous state. I don't suppose there is a higher percentage of readers in Munich than London.

    I suspect 3 for 2 offers do work in sales terms. I worked for Safeway for awhile and there was always an immediate pick up in sales every time an offer was announced. Safeway found customers still didn't like Safeway but they would come in and cherry pick the offers. I guess it becomes an addictive part of the business model trying to permanently engineer the extra sales boost.

    What is lost I think is the chance to build a relationship with your customers. If you come in for the 3 for 2 offer you are probable not going to get much beyond the two trestles at the front of the shop. I wonder how many customers leave with one book they want, one they have heard of and a final choice they would never have picked except it was free. What will be the experience of reading books picked on that basis? How much better to direct the customer to something you genuinely believe in, then draw them into exploring more interesting works. That might keep them coming back?

    Waterstones' stock availability feature suggests they do have the books anonymous was seeking but not in all of the stores. Hampstead seems to get a particularly good sample. Another supermarket trick pandering to the assumed requirements of a local market.

  5. speaking of beautiful bookshops, have a look at this one in Maastricht:

  6. Probably because...
    they are professional booksellers/retailers unlike a lot of indpendent British shops which are run by people who haven't a clue on how to run a business....many of whom think the trade owes them a living....

  7. Jonathan,

    Wow. I'll have a piece o' that, thank you very much.

  8. Interesting. Any idea how the buying trends are per population in Germany compared to the UK? I thought the UK had the highest book buying public in Europe or is that urban myth? I certainly buy books I wouldn't otherwise buy when they're really cheap in Tesco ... Benjamin Black anyone?

  9. Hi,

    I am living in Munich and your blog has been recommended by an english bookshop friend. I really enjoyed the conclusions you made from the different pricing in the UK and Germany: Valueing the books. If only that were the case. The truth is much more worldly. There is a law for selling books. It says you are not allowed to give discounts on books unless they are damaged. The book here is considered not a mere product but a cultural item. This is to protect the small book shops against big chain bookshops.
    Greetings from bavarialand