Waterstone’s and Ottakar’s Merger

Hot off the Galleycat press – so hot that the story has yet to be run by BBCi or Guardian Unlimited – it appears that the Office of Fair Trading has not been convinced by the reassurances of HMV, the Waterstone’s parent company, that their planned takeover of Ottakar’s will not result in reduced competition in the high street. The OFT will refer the plan to the Competition Commission. (For more background on this story, see this Telegraph article.)

The HMV group is, understandably, not happy. This quote via Galleycat, citing an article by Fiona Fraser in the Bookseller:

HMV said it was disappointed that the OFT found difficulty in clearing the transaction. The company reiterated its belief that a combination of Waterstone’s and Ottakar’s will not give rise to any substantial lessening of competition and intends to pursue vigorously its position before the Competition Commission.

What does this mean for the average reader? A cut in the action, really. You won’t see any changes in the high street for a while yet. Authors and publishers will, in the short term, be reasonably happy. A publisher needs as expansive a presence as possible to optimally tantalise readers with its wares, and a diverse retail environment would fit with this need. Authors want to know that their books have a chance of appearing in the high street irrespective of whether a centralised buying team (like Scott Pack’s; see my earlier article) gives them the nod. Of course, there is no great certainty that a merger would be a bad thing for authors; we just don’t know what kind of relationship neighbouring branches of Ottakar’s and Waterstone’s might have. My gut feeling is that fierce competition would not be in the interests of the parent company, but, then, I’m just a writer, not a high-powered exec.

I have an interesting footnote: Shortly after I posted this article about Scott Pack, in which I bemoaned the particular difficulties of getting my book into the local Waterstone’s – difficulties I still have – I received an email from the man himself (I’m assuming it was genuine!) asking to read my book. It isn’t every day that the chief buyer for the largest bookseller wants to read your novel, so I sent him a copy forthwith, along with my business card, a pressed flower, and a crisp fiver.

Tempting as it is to buy a Ferrari on HP, I’ll remain in ‘grumpy young man’ mode and keep my upper lip stiff about the whole business. There are two halves to being a writer. (Not that I’m a veteran, but this is how it seems to me.) One is having the talent, which you are responsible for, and one is having the luck, which is at the caprice of larger forces. You need to be ready to surf those big waves of luck when they come. Will the wave peter out before it gets to me, or will it carry me laughing to the shore, or will it be one of those waves that’s far too large and eats you up completely, tumbling you to its base, and then gives you a thump on the neck with your own board and dumps you on the shore, where you need a good lie down?

I’ll let you know.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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