Friday, June 12, 2009

The Great Travel Book Controversy

Here's an example of a story I might not have known about had it not been for social media. I am a "fan" of Frommer's travel guides on Facebook because I have edited their books off and on for 13 years. Yesterday Frommer's posted a link to this blog post from Arthur Frommer himself, the nonagenarian who once traveled Europe on $5 a day (these days, that will buy you a can of Pepsi). The problem? A bookstore chain in Britain has signed an exclusive deal with Penguin to stock only Penguin travel titles (including the lovely DK Eyewitness Guides and the Rough Guides).

But what makes this bad is that the chain is WHSmith, which has a monopoly on stores in all British airports and train stations, not to mention its huge "high street" presence (Brit-speak for the stores you see on the main road through towns). So you can see why Arthur is mad. His Frommer's books are being pushed off the shelves of 400 stores.

You can google it and see the media reactions, most of which side with Arthur. The public is being denied freedom of choice (and coverage of many destinations). Many publishers are being hurt and jobs are at stake. Penguin (part of Pearson) acknowledges that it's a sweetheart deal (but at a 72% discount, they are going to have to sell a lot of books to make up for such an unprecedented concession--good thing those Eyewitness Guides are expensive and are probably printed overseas, bringing down their unit costs).

As always, though, it's the comments on the media stories that shed the most light. (You have to love those Brits for their polite, insightful, and grammatically correct comments!) The point has been raised that smart travelers do their research ahead of time and don't buy overpriced books at the last minute in airports. Others have commented that by limiting their selection, WHSmith will lose sales.

However it turns out, you can bet American publishers and booksellers will be watching. None of us would like to see B&N making exclusive deals with the competition.

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