Penguin & WH Smith - The big guidebook fuss

My guidebook-writing chums in the BGTW are furious about the reported deal between Penguin Books and WH Smith that will lock out other guidebook publishers from WH Smith transport outlets.

The Bookseller broke the story and I have been one of those who have left comments at the bottom of the original article.

On the face of it, the issue seems to be a straightforward assault on consumer choice.

Shoppers at 450 branches of WH Smiths at railway stations, motorway service stations and airports will be offered only guidebooks from Rough Guides and Dorling Kindersley (and Alastair Sawdays accommodation directories - he's an ex-guildie by the way).

So, what's the problem? Rough Guides are excellent guidebooks, and although DK are viewed with considerably less enthusiasm by the writers I know, they are very popular with travellers... and I quite like them too.

Well the problem is choice. Shoppers at those 450 branches won't find guidebooks from the likes of Berlitz, Frommers, Fodor, Michelin, The AA, Thomas Cook, Insight, Bradt, Globetrotters, Time Out, Blue Guides, Footprint, Lonely Planet and a host of others, and there are, of course, destinations that the Penguin imprints (DK, Rough Guides) simply don't cover. Their portfolio of titles is pretty comprehensive in North America, South America and Europe, less strong in the Middle East and Asia, and downright patchy in Africa. So not only are there plenty of destinations not offered, but there are also sub-destinations not covered. For example, A businessman on short trip to Kuala Lumpur wouldn't find a cityguide in WH Smith at the airport, just DK's Malaysia & Singapore guide.

But like most things in life, it's not quite that black & white.

The reality is, bookshops can't carry stock to cover every destination and anyway, not many guidebooks are sold in these locations. Most people buy guidebooks well before they depart and usually from Amazon. So streamlining the product range is probably not such a big deal. Booksellers, including WH Smith, are not after the "long tail". They want to offer as many of the most popular books to their customers as they efficiently can. Besides, one guidebook publisher told me "they didn't use to stock our books in those stores anyway". Furthermore, other than at airports, consumers have a choice. They can walk out of WH Smiths and walk into Borders or Waterstones instead. And, as one of the other commentators pointed out, if all else fails you can always buy a guidebook at the destination itself!

So what is the fuss about?

Well, for guidebook writers...they see it as just another assault on their standards & pay if their non-Penguin books are booted out of WH Smiths.

For me... I don't have a problem with Penguin & WH Smith's right to cut such a deal. (I think they should be feeling pretty pleased with themselves!) Nor am I so bothered about the motorway and railway outlets - they would probably only stock domestic titles anyway, and would-be customers can always shop elsewhere. I'm more concerned with the airport situation.

I think there is a small problem there. It's not caused by Penguin's exclusive deal with WH Smith. It's caused by the combination of Penguin's exclusive deal with WH Smith....and WH Smith's exclusive deal with BAA. It creates a faintly ridiculous situation where, for a year, travellers flying from the UK's major airports will not be able to buy a guidebook to some destinations on routes from that airport.

The Bookseller quotes somebody from WH Smith suggesting that trials had indicated that the move would make travel guide shopping "easier for the customer", as travel customers were "extremely time pressed". Yeah! Maybe at a rail station, but that's clearly not true for airports where retail units plunder the pockets of a captive market with time to kill. If air passengers were "time pressed" I very much doubt WH Smith's deal with BAA would even exist!


Lina Zaproudi said…
Alastair, very good analysis on the guidebooks situation.
You've hit it on the nail with your last comment.
If WH Smiths didn't have the exclusive deal with BAA, I see no problem, for the reasons you mentioned.
As it stands though, it creates an awkward lack of choice for travellers that BAA should address.
(not that I'm impressed with them!)

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