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WH Smiths loses its way

The British Guild of Travel Writers has condemned as monopolistic and anti-competitive the intention by WH Smith to make publisher Penguin the sole supplier of foreign travel guides in its travel outlets.

The contract, if it goes ahead, would mean that the Penguin imprints of travel books (DK, Alastair Sawday and Rough Guides) will be the only foreign travel guides on offer at some 450 WHS Travel stores in the UK in airports, motorway and railway shops.

This move could mean other popular guides such as Lonely Planet, Bradt, Michelin, Insight, Frommers, Time Out and Berlitz are marginalised and missing out on trade at airports as WHS signed an exclusive deal with BAA earlier this year to service its seven UK airports, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

Discriminatory and domineering

Guild chairman Melissa Shales described it as “a body blow” for the guidebook industry: “Penguin and WHS are set to neatly truss up the rest of the industry with this exclusivity deal,” she said. “It means that you won’t be able to get a book to many destinations at an airport – the DK/Rough Guide list is far from universal. With some of the best sales outlets in the UK closed to other publishers, jobs are set to be on the line.” She urged customers: “Do us and yourselves a favour. Don’t pick up a Penguin and don’t shop at WHS until they see sense.”

Lonely Planet CEO Stephen Palmer, told The Bookseller he was disappointed and shocked: “It will have an impact on the business,” he confirmed.

Guild member and guidebook writer Hugh Taylor said: “This is an example of a large company using its financial muscle to stifle competition. At a time when all guidebook publishers are struggling due to falling markets, I fear this move could push some over the edge.”

Choice? What choice?

It is believed that the terms of the deal with Penguin include a 72 per cent discount with added cash upfront. A spokesperson from WHS said however that trials had indicated that the move would make travel guide shopping “easier for the customer” as travel customers were “extremely time pressed” and that recent trials had “had extremely positive feedback”.

Guild member and Frommers guidebook writer Jeremy Head dismissed this: “Let's face it, it is a totally transparent attempt to put a positive spin on a clearly anti-competitive, anti-customer move. The market is being carved up.”

Mike Gerrard, Guild member and author of more than 30 guidebooks, agreed: “What next? You'll only be able to buy Penguin biscuits? Or only Rupert Murdoch's newspapers? Of all the places where travellers need a choice of good guidebooks, it is at airport bookstores.”

Travel book specialist Stanfords general manager, Andrew Steed, said the deal restricted consumer choice and that Penguin’s move was “defensive”: “They are buying a means to a market by agreeing these terms,” he said.

Falling sales appear to have forced a kneejerk reaction by Penguin. According to The Bookseller, Nielsen BookScan figures show that in 2008, travel book sales fell 8.7% in value year-on-year.

Penguin’s overall market share during the first 16 weeks of 2009 fell to 9.1%, down from 9.7% over the comparative period in 2008. Penguin's share of the entire travel market last year was 18% (9.8% DK and 8% Rough Guides). Over the 16 week period, DK sales dropped 16.5%, with Rough Guides reporting a drop of 30%. DK published 27 of the top 100 international travel guides last year, with Lonely Planet publishing 23 and Rough Guides publishing 17.


The British Guild of Travel Writers (BGTW): Sarah Monaghan: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

The British Guild of Travel Writers, founded in 1960, is the premier professional association for bonafide journalists, editors, photographers, and radio and film broadcasters working in the travel field. www.bgtw.org

7 June 09

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