Harry Potter publisher wins over supermarket giant

London, July 18:

In a titanic battle worthy of Harry Potter and Lord Voldem-ort, one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains and the most powerful independent publisher squared up yesterday over the latest and last novel about the young wizard.

Less than a week before the launch of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in JK Rowling’s series, supermarket chain Asda launched an extraordina-ry attack on Bloomsbury, the publisher of the book, accusing it of ‘blatant profiteering’ and ‘attempting to hold children to ransom’ over the recommended novel’s retail price.

Bloomsbury, in response, threatened to cancel the chain’s order of 500,000 copies of the novel, which will be published at midnight on Friday, claiming Asda was in arrears over monies it owed the publisher. It also instructed its lawyers over the statement, which the firm’s marketing director, Minna Fry, described as ‘extremely provocative and potentially libellous’.

Last night it was clear that the boy wizard’s publisher had prevailed. Asda issued an unreserved apology for the statement, which was made by its director of general merchandise, Peter Pritchard, and removed it from its website, having earlier also settled the outstanding debt. The book will go on sale in its 340-plus stores.

“We look forward to a good relationship with Bloomsbury going forward,” the firm said, “including selling latest Harry Potter book from July 21, and many other Bloomsbury books in the future.”

Minna Fry, marketing director of Bloomsbury, said, “We are pleased this situation has been resolved and look forward to working with Asda in the future.” The spat has arisen because of the intensely aggressive competition between retailers over the sale of the novel, which has driven prices in the major retailers to less than half that recommended by the publisher.

Bloomsbury’s RRP for the book is £17.99; Asda, like rival Tesco, will be selling it for less than half price. At that level both are losing money on each copy of the book, which sells wholesale at around £10.74 a copy. No major retailer can afford not to sell the book at a loss: booksellers Waterstone’s, Amazon and WH Smith will charge £8.99.

A spokesman for Waterstone’s said pricing the book competitively encouraged new readers into bookshops. “You can’t look at this as just one book,” he said. “People will be buying more than one book, and it brings people into bookshops who do not normally come in. Each Harry Potter bookis a long-term prospect, not just a one-day wonder.”

Bloomsbury argued that £17.99 was a reasonable price for the hardback novel, which runs to 608 pages, and that Asda’s comparison with the first book in the series was mischievous. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, released with an RRP of £11.99 a decade ago, had 223 pages. The publisher is known to be unhappy about major retailers selling the book as a loss leader.

Joel Rickett, the deputy editor of the Bookseller, described the confrontation as ‘quite extraordinary’. “It really shows the strength of the underlying resentments between the big publishers and the most aggressive discount retailers. These tensions have been buil-ding for years, but this specific row is absolutely amazing, the fact that Bloomsbury has been bold enough to threaten not to supply any books to Asda.”

Publishers have felt increasingly assailed by discount retailers attempting to use their financial muscle to negotiate better deals, he said. “Asda has been in protracted negotiations with a lot of publishers trying to negotiate new payment frameworks, and Bloomsbury has angered them by having no flexibility.”

“Independent bookshops, of course, argue that the overall structure is unfair because there is no way they can compete. It is heartbreaking that some small booksellers lose money on what is the biggest publishing phenomenon of their lifetime.”