Tagholm's Take - the news in books at 14 September 2018

Roger Tagholm
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 14 September 2018

Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, on Waterstones' purchase of Foyles and other recent book trade news


Well, no one saw that coming. The trade is still reeling from Waterstones' acquisition of Foyles - arguably the industry's best kept secret since Bertelsmann's swoop on Random House UK back in 1998. No one saw that coming either.

The Random House deal had two sides to it. First, it was about publishers coming together to give them the scale they needed to compete with what were then new online businesses, like Amazon, but in the UK it was also about giving them the extra strength to combat the growing size of the chains and the supermarkets, both of which were flexing their muscles following the collapse of the Net Book Agreement. The Waterstones/Foyles deal is the retail equivalent, only the challenge is not just "Amazon's siren call", as Waterstones' MD James Daunt puts it in a line that will be oft-repeated, but the whole digital gauntlet.

Some might say that Netflix is as much a threat to physical booksellers as online retailers (though series like Thirteen Reasons Why can lead YA viewers to the novel). Daunt thinks the Foyles deal makes Waterstones "stronger and better positioned to protect and champion the pleasures of real bookshops", and that "good bookshops are rediscovering their purpose in the fight back against online and e-reading".

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Bookselling news continues also to dominate the agenda in the US, where the future of Barnes & Noble remains uncertain. Book sales for the chain were down about 7% in the first quarter of 2018, but the company says that has been caused by glitches, now solved, in its click and collect set-up. Chairman Len Riggio is optimistic that in fiscal 2019 the chain will have "positive" sales at stores open at least a year, while observers remain intrigued by a nugget of information revealed in former ceo Demos Parneros' lawsuit against the company: he asserted that "a book retailer" had offered to buy B&N in spring this year.

Speculation as to who this might be is rife. The first name on people's lips was Canada's Indigo, which has been experimenting with lifestyle stores and is making its first moves into the US. But following Waterstones' acquisition of Foyles, some observers have noted that hedge fund Elliott Advisors, which bought a majority interest in Waterstones in April, is itself the UK branch of the US investment firm Elliott Management Corp (EMC). Is EMC seeking other bookstore acquisitions? Amazon has also been mentioned as a possible suitor, although anti-trust issues would surely prevent such a deal.

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Raise High the Font Beams, Carpenters. It is the centenary of JD Salinger's birth on 1 January 2019, and Little, Brown US has already prepared new editions of all his books. Once again, the author's famous stipulation that his covers should have no illustrations means that designers simply have fonts and colours to play with - a challenge that Little, Brown's designers have risen to admirably. Meanwhile, in New York, Harold Ober Associates, which has represented the author and his estate since 1940, has merged with Folio Literary Management, which will now run the Salinger estate. The president of Harold Ober Associates, Phyllis Westberg, who has represented the author since 1990, is to retire.

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Congratulations to the "Latvian Literature" platform, whose #iamintrovert campaign - which many saw at the London Book Fair - received gold awards for Integrated Campaign and Brand Story at Latvia's Adwards 2018 in Riga. Author and creative director of the campaign Una Rozenbauma explained her approach: "We take pride in things others would likely want to hide; moreover, we do it in a way that resonates with the British - through self-irony."

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Congratulations also to Chad Post, director of Open Letter Books, the non-profit translation house at the University of Rochester (New York State), who has received the 2018 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature given by the online literary magazine Words Without Borders (WWB). It is named after James H Ottaway Jr, the first chair of WWB, and "recognises an individual whose work and activism have supported Words Without Borders' mission of promoting cultural understanding through the publication and promotion of international literature".

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What do you do with damaged books that are beyond repair? Underground Books, a used, rare and antiquarian bookshop in Carrollton, Georgia, chops them up into very fine pieces and sells them as "literary confetti" for a dollar a bag. A good way to celebrate any book industry wedding.

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