Battling with Trading Standards

I know that the received wisdom of business management is that one shouldn’t speak ill of one’s competitors. But at times the frustration at the disdain with which smaller players are treated becomes too much. This is one of those times.

For the past five years, we have worked tirelessly to establish a publishing company that provides quality guidebooks for expats. Our first guidebook to Sudan was written for two reasons. Firstly, because we didn’t believe that Bradt – our only competitor for guidebooks to the country – had done a good job. And we still don’t. Secondly, we couldn’t understand how people living in Khartoum could not fall in love with the place. And we still don’t.

Our Sudan guidebook has done astonishingly well, and we have exceeded our own expectations with both editions.

But Bradt still seems to be in denial about our existence. This is despite the fact that we have repeatedly told them about our guidebook, and that the researcher for their last edition knew of our guide. He may even have got a copy.

I’m not saying that Bradt should have sent us flowers or anything – although, if they are listening and do consider doing so, pink carnations would be nice – but when they continue to insist, despite repeated warnings, that they are the only guidebook to Sudan… well, then I take issue.

Shortly after we published the first edition of our guidebook to Sudan, Bradt published a new edition of their own guide, maintaining that theirs was “the only standalone guidebook to this unique edition”. Despite the fact that the researcher of the guidebook was aware of our guide.

I promptly responded to say that it was no longer true and, quite reasonably I felt, requested that they change this claim.

This was the polite email I got back from Janet Mears:

“Thank you for your letter of 4th December 2010 and your follow-up telephone call of 7th January 2011.  I apologise for the delay in responding.

I confirm that the next printing of Bradt’s Sudan will have the words ‘This is the only standalone guide to this unique destination’ removed from the back cover.”

Sorted. Or so I thought.

But, when they republished their guide in November 2012, they repeated their assertion, this time claiming theirs was “the only guidebook to post-partition Sudan”. Again a totally false statement that they should have been fully aware of.

Incidentally, it is worth pointing out at this point that the Advertising Standards Authority have upheld the complaint against Bradt’s misleading claim, and requested websites remove the wording. Unfortunately, they do not have the mandate to take action against “product packaging” – or in other words the blurb on the back of a book.

Enter Trading Standards.

I have spent the past year toing and froing with Trading Standards. At first, thanks to a wonderfully helpful official from the organisation, I thought that they would be able to help. But my complaint appears to have got caught up in labyrinthine bureaucracy.

I’ll spare you the rather tortuous emails that I have been exchanging with Trading Standards, save to quote from their last significant correspondence: “Despite the complaint appearing to reveal some potential CPR offences, it seems to be more of a civil copyright issue between two publishing companies.”

I’m not sure where the person quoted studied law, but this is wrong on so many levels. We are not claiming that Bradt infringed copyright. We are asserting, quite strongly, that the company is in breach of Trading Standards by openly (and perhaps deliberately) lying on their product packaging. It seems a fairly open-and-closed case. But, even if there are grey areas I am not fully appreciating, at least someone should look seriously at our complaint. After all, as a British taxpayer, I’m funding Trading Standards.

Yet still Trading Standards refuse to take any action. Their mandate says that they can become involved if a product does not “match the description on packaging”?

So why are they not at least considering our case, when the Advertising Standards Authority agree that the wording Bradt is using is invalid?

It’s a point I have put to them and I am yet to hear back, simply being passed from one person to the next. It strikes me as faintly ironic that I read Franz Kafka for the first time, when updating our guidebook to the country.

I am still pursuing the matter, with dwinling optimism, since Trading Standards’ justification for turning our case down appears extremely watery, and I would welcome any views on the matter.

But, in the meantime, remember that Bradt’s claim that theirs is “the only guidebook to post-partition Sudan” is a blatant lie. And one that has probably cost us sales. We were the first publishing company to produce a guidebook to Sudan after independence. And no one can ever take that claim away from us.

And buy our guidebook – not theirs.

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