Athenaeum bookshop, Amsterdam 3 April 2007 - Presentation of the Athenaeum director, Mr Maarten Asscher, for Ukrainian book distributors

The Athenaeum bookshop has been established in 1966 by Johan Polak, a classical scholar and the heir to a family fortune earned with perfume, who established a publishing house (in 1963) and this bookshop. In the early 1970’s the ownership was restructured and the bookshop’s staff, in the form of a foundation, became part owner of the company (48%), while the remaining shares are linked to the function of managing director and of one trustee. This intelligent structure ensures that the bookstore cannot be taken over, so the continued independence of the company is guaranteed.

During our visit, we spoke with Maarten Asscher, the director of Athenaeum who was originally a publisher, and later a senior policy advisor at the Dutch Ministry of Culture.

Asscher advocates small-scale, medium-size and individualism, and would like Athenaeum to be such a company. He stressed that the bookshop is a cultural institution on economic basis. He considers it a moral duty to ensure the continuation of a flourishing business.

One of the problems of the Dutch book market Asscher mentioned is that there are no middle-sized publishers. Nowadays, literary publishers are either dangerously small or much too big. It is a fact that in the long run interesting new writers emerge from publishing houses that are able to operate in a stable end independent environment. That is why interesting new publications (literary magazines, debut novels, poetry collections, essays, etc.) come from publishers who are small and want to stay small. Asscher considers small a publisher who issues a maximum of 20 to 30 titles annually. Big media conglomerates in the Netherlands also own trade and literary book imprints, but in the end the ownership of these conglomerates is more interested in newspapers and educational and professional books than in the business of literary books.

In The Netherlands, there are approximately 1.500 bookstores, 20% of which can be said to be fully independent. On the publishing side the situation is more or less the same: three quarters of all the trade books that are being published in the Netherlands come from three big media conglomerates. It is a question of time before two of these three will merge. Smaller publishers and independent booksellers will have to cooperate more to discover new ways of getting their share of successful books.

Showing the cultural variety of literature and books (whether as publisher or as bookseller) is not easy in economic terms, but fortunately the Athenaeum Bookshop has three unique characteristics, which will enable it to continue its work: an excellent place for the shop (on Spui square, right across from the University of Amsterdam), excellent staff, and the independence which enables it to stay away from unnecessary opportunism.

Maarten Asscher pointed out that Athenaeum would not have survived without the age-old net book price agreement (net book price maintenance), which allows Athenaeum to keep investing in a broad variety of stock (presently some 50.000 titles). Service to customers, an always up to date website and interesting promotional activities involving writers, critics and academics, plus some modest publishing activities on a high quality level, contribute to the image of Athenaeum as a very special bookstore.

Apart from the bookstore on Spui, with its adjacent News Centre, Athenaeum has a general bookstore in Haarlem as well, plus four small campus bookshops in locations of the University of Amsterdam / Amsterdam City College. Together the yearly turnover of the company is 7 million euro. If you put the average book price at € 20 , that means selling 350.000 books per year. For trade books, the average publisher’s discount is 40 %, for textbooks and academic books it is mostly 25 %.

But the most important thing to realize, says Asscher, is that all these 350.000 books have to be ordered, stocked, sold, and wrapped by hand by the 50 people on our pay-roll. This needs a very dedicated staff that combines a true dedication to books with a very practical attitude to the commercial side of the work.

Asscher appreciates the value of “The Central Book House”, and especially the Dutch ability to compromise, which enabled Dutch publishers and booksellers to organise book distribution on a collective basis. As he nicely said: “A compromise is for the Dutch what eros is to other people.” It is perhaps the main reason why the Dutch have such a well-organised book market.

Other books than academic ones are cheaper; the average price of sold books in 2006 amounted to ca € 16,50.

© CEEBP 2007

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