Earlier today I tweeted a link to a BBC news item about Waterstones ending their 3 for 2 book promotions scheme. This has been widely reported and the Guardian report can be found here. @simonlucas replied to my tweet with a question as to whether this is good or bad. I've been thinking about this and thought I would put my views down for what it's worth.
To be honest I think it largely depends on whether you are a customer or not, as to me this seems to be good for the customer, and maybe as a mainstream author, but if you are a lesser known author and perhaps emerging talent then the news is not quite so good for you. Now I know nothing about how the pricing of books work, and how the retail price affects the wider industry and ultimately the authors revenues, so I am sure that this is probably far more complicated than my simple mind can cope with, but anyway here goes.
I've often found it hard to truly benefit from 3 for 2 in Waterstones. I can find one or two books but often not a third, so might end up with something that I didn't really want in the first place, and I have a few books on my shelves that fall into this category and in some cases have yet to be read. To be honest I've had more success in supermarkets, because I can find one or two books at a reduced price, and they are really books that I want. This only works for very popular authors however as the lesser known ones are unlikely to find their books on the supermarket shelves, and with 3 for 2 I have often picked up a lesser known author as my "lucky third", read it, enjoyed it and gone back to read their backlist. So for me to have the choice of books at £3, £5 or £7 is more appealing than a 3 for 2, but if you're one of those "lucky third" authors then it is now likely that I am not going to be taking a chance on your book.
Given that if I ever get published myself I am more likely to be in the "lucky third" category than the mainstream (at least to start with!), then the demise of 3 for 2 is not going to be a good thing. If my book is not "free" then how many less people are likely to "buy" it and discover me and then make me mainstream?
Now this year in particular my book buying and reading has changed considerably. I have read far more books this year than I can recall ever doing, many have been e-books (on kindle) and many have been as a result of picking book choices up through twitter, Good Reads and other places, and less through browsing the shelves of Waterstones. The majority have been written by authors who's books I have never read before and most you wouldn't find on the shelves of Waterstones or similar let alone as a "lucky third".
Times are a changing however and I have written about the impact of e-books and online sales on bookshops before, and my concerns about the potential loss completely of the high street bookshops, so I won't repeat those again. This year has seen Borders close it's doors, and I have read many articles about small independent shops closing too, so life is tough out there for high street bookstores, there is considerable competition from e-books, the online retailers and the likes of supermarkets. To me there is something special about a bookshop though, it is an experience that I wouldn't want to see lost from the high street, one that generations to come should be able to continue to enjoy.
I do feel though that the beginning of the end as far as bookstores are concerned has been reached and I think it is going to be increasingly likely that more bookstores will close over time, particularly more smaller shops in smaller towns but also I suspect we may well still see the end of some of the bigger chains too. Waterstones might be safe, they are after all the only big chain in the UK now, outside of WHSmith, and overall I think the demise of the 3 for 2 is probably a good move for them and their customers but perhaps not so for lesser known authors.
So I think if you (hopefully like me one day) will be in the "lucky third" then it might be time to turn more to self-publication, certainly self-promotion, and rely more on online sales.