Sunday, November 27, 2005


Big Pack Attack

It's make or break time for British booksellers. The Waterstone's and Ottakar's merger -- the fears over which have been previously discussed here and here on this blog -- is going before the UK's Office of Fair Trading.

Today's Observer reports that "this week could be decisive for the future of the book trade":

Scott Pack is already seen by many as the most powerful man in the books trade. As head buyer for Waterstone's, he decides which books the country's largest chain will stock and promote. His decisions can make or break an author's career. On Friday, his influence is set to extend yet further. The Office of Fair Trading is due to decide whether to refer Waterstone's planned takeover of Ottakar's bookshops to the Competition Commission. If the £96.4 million deal is given the go-ahead, Waterstone's parent company, HMV, will control at least 23.6 per cent of the British book trade.

Leading publishers and authors are making a last-ditch attempt this weekend to head off the deal, which some fear will mean too much power being concentrated in the hands of Pack and Alan Giles, chief executive of HMV. 'Scott Pack is believed to be pretty much all-powerful in deciding which books are promoted,' said Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Royal Society of Authors. 'His decisions are then rolled out through the country. Publishers are in thrall to him, and authors' careers are dependent on his decisions.'

The biographer Michael Holroyd is one of the writers who have come out against the merger. 'Waterstone's choose about 5,000 books a year and promote them so that they sell tremendously - at the expense of other books,' he said. 'If a book isn't taken up within a month, it is replaced. Ottakar's, on the other hand, gives books more time to take off. There are two categories of books - the tortoises and the hares. If this deal goes ahead, we will end up with all hares and no tortoises. Books that could become classics in 20 years' time are being threatened.'

It's a story that gets curioser and curioser when you see in the Independent a few weeks ago a report that "The OFT has been furnished with all manner of evidence on Waterstone's market position - including, it is rumoured, a tape of controversial chief buyer Scott Pack talking to a publisher."

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