The WH Smugopoly

Arthur Fromm is incandescent.

Until this week, the 450-some-odd travel bookstores operated in Great Britain by W.H. Smith & Co. were reliable sources of a large variety of both popular and profound travel books and travel guides. This week, W.H. Smith has become something else — a “thing” so unattractive that I don’t trust myself to describe it, I must first calm down.

It has been announced that this major chain, found — among other places — in every airport and major railroad station of the British Isles, will no longer stock or display any travel guides other than those published by Penguin (which include the DK Guides, Rough Guides, and Alastair Sawday’s). Receiving a large advance cash payment from Penguin, as well as an unprecedented 72% discount off the cover price of the books, W.H. Smith, in effect, will become a one-publisher travel bookstore chain. A travel bookshop in the information business, which means it is in the Freedom of the Press business, will deliberately deny its customers access to anyone else’s travel books. The public utilizing a W.H. Smith travel bookstore, often the only bookstore in its particular travel-related locations, will have access to only one travel outlook, one brand of travel publication.

Last year, according to reliable accounts, Penguin travel books accounted for only 18% of the travel books sold by W.H. Smith. The public, by an overwhelming margin, opted to choose travel books published by others. In travel bookshops of W.H. Smith, they will no longer find the books that used to account for over 80% of their choices.

He’s right. It’s ludicrous. It must have looked like a great deal to Penguin; but it’s lousy for consumers. And I think Penguin will live to regret it. And it reinforces the urgency of breaking up BAA.

Michael Palin is also pissed off about it.