BRITAIN’S independent booksellers are fighting back against supermarkets and online retailers in the battle to win over the country’s growing legion of book fans.
Buoyed by the popularity of the Harry Potter series and titles like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, industry experts had predicted small-time sellers would be crippled by supermarket giants and fast-growing websites such as Amazon.
But with an average 4.3 per cent rise in overall book sales during each of the past five years, including 11 per cent in January 2005, independent shops are finding they can still cater for UK readers - especially when it comes to local publications.
And research group Verdict has estimated the smaller retailers will still be selling 13.5 per cent of Britain’s books by 2009 - more than WH Smith, Tesco and the entire internet.
However, this would mean a hefty fall from their 24 per cent share last year, and even the owners of the UK’s 3000 small independent bookshops have admitted they can’t compete with discounted prices on supermarket shelves and online.
While Tesco and Asda can look forward to a bumper summer with the publication of the latest Harry Potter instalment in July, smaller shops fear the ferocious discounting will make it barely worth putting the sixth tome on sale.
The unpublished novel is already at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list and is selling 41 per cent below its recommended retail price.
Donald Grant, of Kay’s Bookshop in Morningside, admits he can’t win a price war, but says he can supply harder-to-reach books for his local clientele.
One such example is Douglas MacLeod’s Morningside Mata Haris, a new book which claims the sleepy East Lothian town of Haddington was home to some of the Second World War’s most vicious Nazi war criminals.
The book is top of Kay’s Bookshop chart and is flying off the shelves, yet is ranked just number 87,270 on Amazon with a wait of up to three weeks.
Mr Grant says: "Morningside Mata Haris is our best seller and it is with books like this where we can compete with the bigger stores.
"We have loyal customers who can come here and they know we stock a huge range of books - many more than in the supermarket.
"We do sell the blockbusters but you can nip down to your local shop and get a free Harry Potter book with your cabbage. However, there isn’t a lot of choice apart from that."
HE continues: "Because we stock so many books we may only have one copy of certain novels, but we put in new orders every single day. That is our skill - we can get you any book within 24 hours whereas you might have to wait up to two weeks at the large chain stores."
But while Mr Grant and his independent counterparts are defying the early death predicted by some analysts, they still face an uphill struggle.
Since the scrapping of the net book agreement in 1995 there has been an explosion of price cutting on bestsellers. Within four years, Verdict analyst Nick Gladding says, one in ten books will be bought in a supermarket and almost 12 per cent online.
Retail giants like Tesco are selling on price alone and because of their enormous buying power they can undercut everyone. But they are only interested in the best-selling titles where high volumes can make up for tiny margins.
Mr Gladding says: "Every sale to a grocer denies footfall and additional revenues to a bookshop."
In Edinburgh, booksellers James Thin and Bauermeister have already fallen victim to the book wars started by giants such as Waterstone’s. Their flagship shops are now either sold or lying empty, as in the case of Bauermeister’s multi-levelled store on George IV Bridge.
But even the largest traditional booksellers could be locked in a battle for survival in the coming years.
Waterstone’s currently has fewer than 200 shops though it commands a 14.7 per cent market share. Ottakar’s has 131outlets but is looking to expand.
Yet the company yesterday said the current year was proving "challenging" with like-for-like sales 1.6 per cent weaker.
Last month, Ottakar’s unveiled a management reshuffle and admitted it had to adapt to changing market conditions.
Supermarkets already sell more books than Ottakar’s and Borders, meaning the pressure on even the largest booksellers will remain intense.