A Week In Books: The future of British bookselling

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The Independent Culture

Whatever its merits as an elliptical parable of Britain after Thatcher, Stephen Poliakoff's TV drama Friends and Crocodiles showed a wayward touch with economic trends. Paul, its maverick business guru, was scorned by his peers when he dreamed of "a chain of quality bookshops". At roughly that moment, the very same fate befell Tim Waterstone, with his quixotic vision of a network of welcoming, well-stocked stores.

Then, after the dot.com bust that wrecked the career of soulmate Lizzie (based on the GEC-Marconi collapse of 2001-2), Paul seemed to ride out the hi-tech slump thanks to the cosy comfort-blanket of the book trade. Here, Poliakoff said farewell to history. In reality, the dot.com squad brought online commerce back to life incredibly fast by driving folk like Paul into the ground.

Last week, Alan Giles - the real-world boss of HMV/Waterstone's - announced his intention to quit after fighting a losing battle against the internet and the supermarkets. HMV now shares stand at around 40 per cent below their level last February: not yet a Marconi-level debacle, but quite bad enough to terrify other retailers.

Tim Waterstone himself sprinkles plenty of romantic anecdotes about the early days of his chain through his handbook for entrepreneurs, Swimming Against The Stream (Macmillan, £16.99). He offers bold advice about trusting to intuition, and spurning market research: "Waterstone's was aimed at me." He delivers splendid broadsides against "the current state of capitalism". Yet the exiled bookstore Bonaparte says little about the current state of his creation.

The unromantic truth is that British chain bookselling - with Waterstone's as its battered figurehead - now looks suspiciously like a murder victim who has decided to speed up his demise by committing suicide. The pincer movement executed by the likes of Asda and Amazon has made the cut-throat discounting of a few sure-fire bestsellers the norm - with all of its risks to future diversity. Far from resisting this assault, the retail chains - and the corporate publishers whom they now bully - have opted to act as their own Sweeney Todds. At Christmas, stores worked frantically to teach shoppers that the true value of a much-publicised new book with a cover price of £18 or £20 is, let's say, £6.99. It amounts to voluntary death by a thousand cuts.

Tempt consumers to buy their Sharon Osbournes and Jamie Olivers in this way, and pretty soon Sharon Osbournes and Jamie Olivers will be all that they can buy. In this climate, for publishers and writers to worry unduly about whether the Competition Commission allows wounded Waterstone's to buy winded Ottakar's in May smacks of fretting over the condemned prisoner's final hearty meal. If current trends persist, we may soon return to a pre-Waterstone's world, with a couple of dozen serious bricks-and-mortar bookshops spread over the entire country.

Except that, now, the internet promises all its vast opportunities for unlimited stockholding. So publishers (and non-celebrity writers) urgently need to get their online story straight. At present, the same advocates of diversity who deplore the shrinking of high-street book stocks also oppose the expansion of the virtual-browsing service offered by internet giants such as Google (Google Print) and Amazon (the "Search Inside" facility).

Yes, huge questions of copyright and control have yet to be resolved. But if publishers refuse to trust the masters of the web, then they should do the job themselves. Anyone who - for good reasons - dreads pollution and extinction in the material environment for books ought to be toiling hard to nurture the virtual environment. Otherwise, all the tears shed for the looming loss of choice and creativity will be - crocodile tears.