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Ekaterinburg: Susan Hill, Amazon, and the Woodstock Bookshop

RICHARD WEBSTER


10 July 2008


The Woodstock Bookshop, OxfordshireJust as I am about to embark on a mundane but vital task, which will take me three days, but which cannot on any account be postponed, an email comes through from one of my fellow members of Writers in Oxford. Ed Fenton, who edits The Oxford Writer, has written to draw my attention to an embarrassing error (now corrected) elsewhere on this site. But then he says this:

Incidentally, have you see Susan Hill’s rave review of Helen Rappaport’s latest book? I only noticed it because a typed copy of it is on display in pride of place in the new Woodstock bookshop.

Now I have to confess that I knew of Helen’s book because she’d been kind enough to send me a note about it. But at the time I was about to embark on another of those mundane but vital tasks which cannot be postponed. So I did nothing. Prompted by Ed’s email, however, I take a moment this morning to type ‘Rappaport’ and ‘Susan Hill’ into Google and discover the review in question. Some good reviews are breezily cheerful about the book they recommend. Susan Hill has not written this kind of piece. What she has to say is a force-nine gale of a review which, in a matter of moments, laid waste to all those carefully constructed plans of mine and just about wrecked my day. Hill had been re-reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky at the time she received an advance copy of Helen’s book. She was evidently enthralled by them. But not as enthralled as she was by the story which Helen told:

. . . And then I read EKATERINBURG: THE LAST DAYS OF THE ROMANOVS.

It kept me up for 2 nights. Rappaport has found a gripping way of telling the story of the Imperial family. She takes us to the house in which they were incarcerated and then through their last thirteen days, to the end, when they died in a terrible mass-shooting. It is the most claustrophobic read. We are locked in the house with them. It is frightening, because we know what is going to happen and wait to find out when, how. It is imagined like a great novel, but it is not fiction. Rappaport is a serious historian, she knows her facts, she knows her Russia. And as I read, gripped by this amazing story, I got my hunch. This book is going to do it, I thought. It has everything going for it. It is that perfect but rare blend of history, sense of place, human tragedy, drama and atmosphere which just cannot fail. So, here is my gut feeling. This book is going to be a bestseller, and its climb up the charts starts now.

In the face of enthusiasm like this you can’t simply get on with everyday tasks, however vital and urgent they may be. In my case at least I find I have no alternative but to stop everything I am doing in order to pass the news on to as many people as I can.

ONE OF THE UNWRITTEN LAWS of the literary world is that you haven’t really received a good review unless it is one which makes practically every author who reads it envious of your good fortune. Helen Rappaport has, I think, been fortunate in just this manner. Why then, does this piece begin with a photograph not of the author, nor of the jacket of her book (which makes its belated appearance only now), but of the Woodstock Bookshop? It is partly because credit should be given where credit is due. It was, after all, the newly opened bookshop that alerted Ed Fenton to Hill’s review and prompted him to draw it to my attention.But it is also because of something which Susan Hill writes at the end of her piece:

. . . This book is going to be a bestseller, and its climb up the charts starts now.

I say this with the utmost confidence because I know you are all going to stop what you are doing now, and pop off to amazon to buy it. If you do not use amazon – and some feel about it as they do about Tesco – then pop to some other internet bookseller, or your local bricks and mortar bookshop. I don’t mind. Just do it. It’s a fantastic book, it will be the best read you will have had for ages.

Now whatever you may think about Amazon – and yes, I confess, I have often used it myself and there are even one or two links to it on this site – there is something unusual about this use of language, so unusual that it starts a quite different train of thought. For the one thing you can’t do is ‘pop off’ to Amazon. And it is strange to find Susan Hill suggesting as an alternative ‘some other internet bookseller, or your local bricks and mortar bookshop’.

It is strange because Amazon is not, and never has been, a bookseller. A bookseller is a human being. Amazon is a money-making machine invented by a man who seeks to make a multi-million pound profit by slitting the throats of other retailers while hoping that the cultural esteem in which his merchandise is held will help to obscure this fact from his customers. And the distinctive thing about the kind of bookshops which you find in the high street – or at 23 Oxford Street, Woodstock – is not that they are made of bricks and mortar. It is that, unlike Amazon, many of them are run by real booksellers. The primary purpose of these booksellers is not to make a vast profit but to earn an honest living by selling the kind of books which give them delight to as many people as possible.It’s true that there is a lot wrong with some independent bookshops. Susan Hill herself pointed this out in an article she wrote for the Guardian a couple of years ago. Some of what she says hits the mark. But some of it misses by a mile. In the course of her discussion she writes this:

When authors tell the public not to buy their books at half price from Amazon or Waterstone’s, I wonder if they have thought this through. If I have £20, I can go to an independent and buy one copy of Alan Bennett’s memoir at full price. Or I can go to a chain or online, get it for half that and have a tenner left over to buy at least one other book. How can that be bad?

Although a well-meaning sub-editor on the Guardian gave her article the title ‘How David can fight Goliath’ it might more accurately have been headed ‘Why I’m backing Goliath’. Hill suggests that her fellow authors haven’t thought things through. But her own words make it quite clear that she hasn’t thought things through herself. She evidently does not understand that the kind of retail battles which are fought out in the High Street are part of a larger war, and that those who aspire to win that war are sometimes quite unscrupulous in the methods they are prepared to use. Tim Waterstone, the founder of Waterstone’s, and Terry Maher (of Pentos and Dillons) were the booksellers who started the trend in Britain. In seeking the retail dominance they eventually achieved they were more than happy to force up against the wall not only other retailers, but publishers and authors too. Amazon, a non-bookseller, is now continuing along the path which Maher opened up when he successfully campaigned to destroy the Net Book Agreement. And Tesco, another non-bookseller, is looking carefully at what Amazon has achieved and showing every sign of wanting to follow its lead.

IF ANYONE DOUBTS THIS they should examine the dispute – or rather battle – which is now being fought between Amazon and the publisher Tim Hely Hutchinson (left) of the Hachette group. which includes Hodder, Weidenfeld, Cassell, Headline, John Murray, Chambers, Harrap, Everyman, Octopus and an array of other once-independent publishers. The nature of the conflict is simple. In order to enlarge its retail empire, Amazon has taken over from where Waterstone’s and Pentos left off. In recent years it has been relentlessly hitting publishers over the head with the iron bar of its retail strength. It has been doing this in order to extort from them more and more money in the form of ever-increasing trade discounts. Tim Hely Hutchinson has had the courage to make a stand against these tactics and say no to Amazon’s demands. In response Amazon have laid aside their old-fashioned iron bar and taken to pointing a gun at publishers’ heads instead. In the case of Hely Hutchinson, in order to show they mean business, they have decided, as those who run protection rackets often do, to pull the trigger. Earlier this year they removed the ‘Buy New’ button from key titles published by the Hachette Group, and also took these titles away from promotional positions on the website. In effect they took selected authors’ books off their shelves in an attempt to punish and intimidate their publisher for daring to resist their retail might.Hely Hutchinson responded by writing a letter to all Hachette authors in which he predicted that Amazon’s actions might lead to it losing popularity with the public. He said that, even though it already received advantageous terms, ‘Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at our expense and sometimes at yours.’He went on to reaffirm Hachette’s intention to stand firm against conceding additional terms: ‘Declining all additional terms demands is the approach that we even-handedly take with all major retailers, and it is particularly important in relation to Amazon. ’

As was first reported in the Bookseller, Hely Hutchinson added that Amazon’s ‘aggressively low’ pricing on prominent titles was damaging traditional bricks-and-mortar booksellers and Hachette did not wish to provide additional ‘ammunition’ for the online retailer to do so.As the Bookseller went on to report in the following week [scroll down for some well-informed readers’ comments], Hely Hutchinson’s stand drew strong support from agents, fellow publishers and authors:

Curtis Brown m.d. Jonathan Lloyd said: ‘I think the entire industry of publishers, authors and agents are 100% behind [Hachette]. Someone has to draw a line in the sand. Publishers have given 1% a year away to retailers, so where does it stop? Using authors as a financial football is disgraceful.’Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander added: ‘This is a disturbing glimpse of the iron in Amazon’s soul. I think its ruthlessness in bargaining is extremely disturbing.’ Derek Johns of A P Watt said: ‘I consider [Amazon’s] attitude to terms is predatory and I entirely support Tim.’

Hachette has also received author support. Headline novelist Emma Darwin said on her blog she supported the move, ‘and hope I shall be unselfish enough to keep doing so even if my own sales are affected. This is about whether Amazon can be allowed to exploit its near-monopoly.’

To be fair to Susan Hill, the great battle between Hachette and Amazon did not begin until long after she had written her piece for the Guardian. And at the time she wrote her review of Ekatrinburg it was only just coming to public attention.It’s true that the writing had been on the wall long before this, but Susan Hill was not alone in failing to read it. One of the people who also failed in this respect was Tim Hely Hutchinson himself. Back in 1994, in the days when Terry Maher of Dillons was still campaigning to destroy the Net Book Agreement, most publishers opposed his campaign. This was because they understood that the the Net Book Agreement outlawed discounting not in order to ‘fix prices’ as uncomprehending journalists repeatedly claimed. It outlawed discounting in order to preserve the health of the book trade as a whole. By preventing large booksellers from cutting smaller booksellers’ throats it stopped them from gaining the kind of power they could ultimately use to throttle publishers. Most publishers could see clearly that Maher was campaigning for the kind of market in which there would be nothing to stop retailers bullying suppliers into granting ever bigger discounts – at the expense of both publishers and authors. But two large publishers disagreed with their colleagues in the trade and argued that if the Net Book Agreement was abolished, both retailers and publishers would benefit. One of these publishers was Tim Hely Hutchinson who was then the chief executive of Hodder Headline. On Boxing Day 1994 the Independent published the news that Hodder Headline was following the example of Reed Books by withdrawing from the Net Book Agreement. The move, said the newspaper, was widely expected to herald the end of the Net Book Agreement. They were right. It did. The great irony is that, in doing away with the small print of the Net Book Agreement, Hely Hutchinson had failed to read the writing in large letters on the wall, which warned that what he was helping to usher in was an era of unfettered retail aggression in which publishers would suffer.

THE RETAIL giant-in-waiting who would stand to benefit most from this unfettering of the cruel forces of the market was none other than Amazon, which was itself founded in 1994. Until this point the Net Book Agreement had been the thin red line which had defended UK booksellers – including Dillons and Waterstones – against the online armies which potentially threatened them.

At one point in the 1950s the NBA was even invoked to prevent any mail-order retailer from waiving postage charges on books they had supplied. This was seen as a form of back-door discounting which might undermine the viablility of genuine booksellers in the high street. With the destruction of the Net Book Agreement all such restraints vanished overnight and, though few saw it at the time, the age of Amazon was born.Last month Hely Hutchinson was quoted in the Telegraph as saying this:

In Britain the terms publishers give to retailers are the highest in the world and more than half of the price of a book goes to the retailer. We have collectively been too soft in our negotiations and we are trying to make a stand.

There can be little doubt that he is right. But it’s interesting (though not surprising) that he fails to acknowledge his own role in bringing about the age of retail dominance he now so publicly laments. Hachette and its authors are now reaping what Tim Hely Hutchinson helped to sow.The Society of Authors, which once fought valiantly against Hely Hutchinson to preserve the Net Book Agreement, is now, it would seem, on his side against the predatory retailer he helped to empower. Tracy Chevalier, its chair, has even talked of strike action:

To punish the author so publicly and so humiliatingly is really not on. I hope other publishers join Hachette and basically strike against Amazon to say there is only so far you can push us before you break us and we are not going to take it any more.

Such reactions may, indeed, have had an effect, since Amazon has already restored the missing ‘Buy new’ buttons to the books of the Hachette authors who had become pawns in its retail war. Where exactly this leaves Susan Hill on the vexed question of Amazon’s merits, I don’t know. It may be that recent developments have persuaded her to think again about the wisdom of championing Goliath against David. I hope so.But I can’t help noticing that one of the most prominent features of her blog is still a clutch of links to Amazon, links which presumably regularly boost her income by the pittance which Amazon pays to its ‘affiliates’. At a time when the chair of the Society of Authors is talking, understandably enough, about strike action, this seems a shame to say the least.

It may well be that Jonathan Lloyd of Curtis Brown has said ‘I think the entire industry of publishers, authors and agents are 100% behind Tim.’ But, judging by the links on Susan Hill’s blog, this figure should be reduced, at the very least, to 99%.What are we to do about this? Perhaps the posting of this article will itself help to change her mind. Or perhaps she has changed it already and will shortly bring her links into line. I hope so. Otherwise my own solution, which is a personal one, as yet unendorsed by the Writers in Oxford committee, is to invite her to come and have a cup of tea with me next time she is in Oxford. Were the invitation accepted we could discuss subjects that writers do not always talk about – subjects like money, commerce and the inner workings of the book trade. I could endeavour to persuade her, if not of the merits of the strike Tracy Chevalier speaks of, at least to be a little more backward in promoting the cause of the non-bookseller Amazon.And if I were to fail in that attempt then I could at least express to her in person my gratitude for what she has written about my fellow Writers in Oxford member Helen Rappaport. For gusts of enthusiasm such as those that blow in the force-nine gale of her review are rare indeed. They may have wrecked all my plans for today and for part of tomorrow as well. But that is what writers are for and people’s plans should perhaps be wrecked more often than they are.I for one will be taking Susan Hill’s advice. And, whether or not she accepts my invitation to tea, I will remain grateful to her. Given the destruction that she has wreaked upon my working timetable it may take me a few days before I get round to buying Ekaterinburg. But I will most certainly be doing so.

From the Woodstock Bookshop.

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NOTE, added Sunday 20 July: The visit to The Woodstock Bookshop has now taken place. It turns out to be one of the wonders of the bookselling world. Small but teeming with books, its modern feel does not overpower the ancient atmosphere of the building, with its wonderfully worn flagstone floor.

Perhaps more importantly, it has been stocked wisely and well. Browsing through the shelves of a big bookseller like Blackwell’s is always a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. But this haystack is made of needles. You can find books in small bookshops that you’ll never find in large ones not because they’re not there but because everything else is too.

It transpires that Rachel Phipps, the owner of the shop, which opened its doors in May of this year, once worked for John Sandoe’s. This Chelsea bookseller, the knowledgability of whose staff is legendary, has been described on more than one occasion as ‘the best bookshop in the world’.

John Sandoe’s loss is, it would seem, Woodstock’s gain. And not only Woodstock’s. For I suspect it will not be long before at least some of the bookbuyers of Oxford, who must be numbered in their tens of thousands, begin to rediscover what most book lovers know in their hearts – that, when it comes to bookshops, small really can be beautiful.

Rachel’s shop has evidently got off to an excellent start. But in the current climate, the financial viabililty of even the best independents is marginal. If she is to survive in the long term she will certainly need pilgrims as well as parishioners.

For the battle of the bookshops continues as we speak. And she’s already noticed that some people who come into her shop appear to be using it to research their purchases elsewhere – presumably online.

Indeed Rachel shows me a two-page, three-article feature which a customer has torn out of the Times that morning and brought in for her. It’s all about the Amazon- Hachette dispute and actually quotes Philip Stone of the Bookseller saying that independent bookshops fear that shoppers are treating them like libraries: ‘People are going into the shop to browse but then go home and buy the book online because it’s cheaper.’

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RICHARD WEBSTER’s most recent book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. It will be published in paperback on 5 November. From 1986 to 1992 he ran The Orwell Bookshop in Southwold, Suffolk.



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