WH Smiths set to push local books to the wall

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The Independent Online

Elusive information on the best local pub or the most secret country walk is at risk following a new directive by Britain's largest bookseller, WH Smith.

WH Smith shop managers have been ordered by their marketing boss, Jo Howard, to end cosy relationships with small local publishers - thus threatening their very existence.

WH Smith used to demand a discount of about 35 per cent from small firms. That will now rise to almost 50 per cent coupled with a demand that credit be extended from 30 to 60 days, bringing instant financial difficulties to small concerns.

Many small firms, who rely on the WH Smith trade, will vanish, taking with them books that may now only be found in libraries. The tough terms will bring small firms in line with the regime that large publishing houses have had to live with for years.

WH Smith's sales are crucial to big publishers. It sells one in four of the books sold in Britain. Sometimes referred to by its critics as "WH Smug", it has always demanded big discounts and extended periods of credit.

But in recent years, the City has not had a good word to say about WH Smith's performance. The company's new chief executive, Bill Cockburn, promised to shake it up. One publishing house told the Independent: "The plan is to shake every branch; however, in the shaking it looks like the small guys are going to drop off."

It is common practice for small publishing firms to deal direct with local WH Smith managers. A print run of 2,000-5,000 copies is typical for small guides, local history texts and local photography books. The sales director at another publishing house said: "Some of us will have a bit of sympathy with Smith's. They do devote space to local books. But like everything in publishing and retailing at the moment, they are looking for a good return, even from a few metres of shelving."

However, even the big houses will shortly feel the squeeze from WH Smith. As part of the company's business review, free information from its shop tills, such as the current list of best selling texts, is to be stopped and replaced with a scale of charges up to pounds 500.

One publishing manager said: "Every time WH Smith needs to go to its computer for information, we will be charged. You could say it is waking up to the idea it can charge for everything - and will."