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The Devaluing of Books.

 

Part One of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust Trilogy (La Belle Sauvage) arrives in October.

Set ten years before the events of the His Dark Materials trilogy, this is one of the most eagerly awaited books of this year (if not the last 20 odd years) in the book trade.

From a personal viewpoint: I can’t wait to read it and am very excited.

As an Indie Bookshop Owner, things get more complicated however.

I am already starting to get that familiar sinking feeling, as it dawns on me which way the wind is blowing.

This feeling all boils down to one issue: pricing.

It is only mid-summer and retailers are already jockeying for position as to who can sell La Belle Sauvage (cover price 20.00 pounds) at the cheapest price possible.

At the moment Waterstones, Amazon, Foyles and WHSmith are all offering 50% discount and Tesco 40%.

These prices may fluctuate of course, and I’m sure more supermarkets will wade in with their offers before long.

But the situation is clear:

A significant book release has become the subject of a major pricing war, and no-one in the book trade is surprised. 

How on earth did it come to this?

 

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Well, heavy discounting of major book releases is not a new phenomenon.

We had the same situation with the publication of the Harry Potter hardbacks, particularly the later ones, as the supermarkets cottoned on to their huge sales potential:

 

  • In 2007, Asda trumped everyone by reducing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from 17.99 to 5.00 pounds (a whopping 72% discount).
  • Morrisons charged 5.99 (67% discount), then, to keep up with Asda, reduced it to 4.99.  
  • Tesco charged 5.00 pounds if shoppers spent 50.00 pounds.
  • Waterstones (under different ownership), Amazon and Woolworths charged 8.99 (50% discount)   and
  • WHSmith charged 10.99 (39% discount). 

 

Ridiculously, all three supermarkets seemed to be making a loss on every book sold, as Bloomsbury were widely reported to be selling the book to all retailers at a maximum of 55% discount (8.10 a copy).

 

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There were many tales flying around at the time of Independent Booksellers buying Harry Potter books in bulk from Tesco at a better discount than they were receiving from the publishers or wholesalers.

(A typical Indie Bookshop would have received about 45% discount from the publishers.)

I personally didn’t do this. I find any trip to Tesco faintly soul-destroying. I think I’d rather have a day out at my local slaughterhouse.

But I can see, from a financial point of view, why this would have been a tempting option.

We are heading for a similar scenario this October, with four retailers already selling The Book of Dust to customers at a lower price than Indie Bookshops pay to the actual publishers.  

   

I should point out that nobody is doing anything inherently wrong by discounting new releases this way.

(For “Inherently Wrong”, you’ll need to read my article on Embargo Dodging).

After publishers have sold stock to retailers at agreed terms, the retailers are free to set the retail price of a book at any level they wish.

This has been the case for many years, since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1997, by coincidence the same year that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published.

1997 was probably the last time anyone paid full price for a Delia Smith book.

 

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So, who are the winners and who are the losers when a hugely-anticipated book like La Belle Sauvage is reduced in price and hurriedly knocked off to the public like a piece of over-ripe fruit on a sunny day?

 

  • The Consumer:

 

The consumer buys a book they really want, and at half price. So a saving of 10.00 pounds on a title they would probably have still bought for 20.00 pounds.

They can even buy it at this price from a dedicated bookshop, giving the (unfortunate) impression that this discount must be completely book-trade sanctioned.  

Winners.

 

  • The Publisher:

 

The publishers will probably have tough negotiations to undertake with retailers.

Bloomsbury famously threatened to pull supplies of the final Harry Potter hardback to Asda after the latter accused Bloomsbury of “blatant profiteering.”

Asda eventually apologised after many of their shoppers complained of being chased round the Frozen Aisle by a Patronus. 

The publisher ultimately holds the better hand though, as the book is guaranteed to sell a lot of copies, and no retailer wants to risk being without it.

So, the retailers take the bigger financial hit from discounting and the publishers will be fine, as long as the book sells (which I’m sure it will in this case).

If it doesn’t sell, there is always a risk of having printed too many copies or receiving a returns deluge from retailers.

Bloomsbury managed to avoid the latter by refusing to take back any returns from bookshops (which is the industry norm) for the seventh Harry Potter book.

They probably knew that bookshops were going to be squeezed out of the market by Amazon/supermarkets and wanted to discourage any over-optimistic ordering.

The Harry Potter “fun factor” was very low for Indies by the time of the last book launch, as we were simultaneously squeezed out of selling the book, and worried about getting stuck with unsold copies.

I was quite relieved when it was all over! 

So the publishers tend to hit paydirt with a huge book like La Belle Sauvage, irrespective of discounting by the retailers.

It has to be said too, that many super-selling books are a deserved reward for a publisher who has nurtured and encouraged the author from the outset. 

Winners.

 

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  • The Author:

 

As I understand it (and I’m not an agent so I probably don’t), the author earns a set amount of money per hardback copy sold, so is unlikely to lose out financially.

When very generous terms are offered to retailers, the amount an author earns (per book sold) can be scaled down, but this reduction is hopefully offset by increased sales.

Some authors will also earn a better rate after a particular sales target is reached.

The author does have to pay back any advance offered by the publisher before he/she begins to earn on a particular title, but I think it is fair to say, as above, that it is the retailer rather than the author that takes the big financial hit when a bestseller is sold at half-price.

In an ideal world, some authors may prefer their books to be sold through boutique bricks-and-mortar bookshops, rather than through supermarkets or via a certain well-known on-line seller of invasive species, weapons and anal plugs:

Sample question:

What is the girth of the base shaft?

Sample feedback:

Fantastic product. Not for beginners.

The ultimate aim of an author though is to be read by as many people as possible. To this end, heavy discounting of new titles can only help, not hinder.

 

Winners.

 

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  • The Supermarkets:

 

The supermarkets pile books high and sell them cheap.

They may only make pennies per copy but will hope to sell many thousands. 

They want to achieve high market share and stop you frequenting other shops, while also hoping you’ll throw in some over-priced fruit salad in a pot and one of those meal-deals-for-two-that-only–feeds-one.

They may even resort to selling at a loss to achieve these aims.

Supermarkets will happily cherry-pick a sure-fire bestselling children’s book without offering space to backlist fiction or Carnegie Prize Longlist titles.

Winners (financially, maybe not spiritually). 

 

  • The On-line Bookseller:

 

Amazon will undoubtedly sell loads. The public will do its usual thing of posting book reviews (for free), creating the impression that the Amazon website is a friendly forum of enquiring minds, as opposed to, say, a perfunctory doorstep into a soulless multinational conglomerate run out of a series of exploitative warehouses.

Winners.

 

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  • The High Street Book Chain:

 

Waterstones and WHSmith will make a very small profit per copy, but, like the supermarkets, will hope to sell in volume and gain healthy market share.

By offering 50% off, they also hope to entice customers into the shop to buy other things at lesser discounts.

This is like saying to authors:

You know that book which you painstakingly laboured over for many years. We’re going to use it, not just as a virtual loss leader, but also as a means to sell other books, not necessarily by you. Essentially, we have turned your masterpiece into a glorified Sandwich Board.

In the case of Waterstones, they can use deep (Russian) pockets to compete with the supermarkets, while simultaneously pushing their image as a “local” “friendly” bookshop.

This is a case of having your cake and eating it.

 

While I am on the subject, here are some interesting quotes by Waterstones MD James Daunt.

See if you can spot the fake one.

 

The importance of Philip Pullman to the cause of reading cannot be overstated.

 

It is Philip who cements the sophisticated, unique pleasures of reading.

 

It is exhilarating to anticipate The Book of Dust, and in this I speak for those of all ages.

 

Lovely jubbly. Knock it out for a tenner. Bish bash bosh. Job’s a good’un.

 

That’s right. It was the first one, clearly.

 

I do wish Waterstones, as a bookseller, would have more faith in their attractive shops and rely on their super-keen staff to sell La Belle Sauvage, rather than resorting to heavy discounting.

The fab Leilah Skelton at Doncaster Waterstones, for instance, when promoting The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, made hundreds of tiny dolls’ house scale copies of the book to give away with every purchase and installed:

“a mechanical motor to create a flying circle for a tiny clay bird that “flew” over the window display.”

I’m sure she alone could sell a couple of thousand full-price La Belle Sauvages, probably more with the aid of a few balloons, a stuffed bear, a hair dryer, a circuit board and some fairy lights.

I know first-hand that many Waterstones employees, as book enthusiasts, have little stomach for heavy discounting and find supermarkets’ low pricing of books very distasteful.

It is a shame that Waterstones is currently under-cutting Tesco on the new Pullman book, not just sleeping with the devil then, but chucking the devil out of bed, and effectively replacing him.

 

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Of course, if James Daunt ever wants to move into selling clothing

(and it’s not unfeasible: Waterstones already sell chrysanthemum trowels and bike horns)

I would jump at the chance to buy:

 

  • A Burberry Trench Coat at 50% discount (750 pounds off. Hooray.) and

 

  • A pair of Alexander McQueen hobnail boots at 50% discount (900 pounds off. Yippee.)

 

Plus I’m hoping he’ll get a job in the Car Industry, as I’ve always fancied:

 

  •  a new Audi TTS Roadster with a half price saving of 21,000 pounds.

 

That would certainly awaken my cheapskate within.

 

My point here is that other industries don’t tend to give away their prized jewels.

So, for the purpose of this article, Waterstones and WHSmith = Winners.

They will inevitably sell a lot of copies at this price. 

 

Blackwell’s have gone for a comparatively sensible 25% discount but they may struggle to sell in significant volume at these levels.

I feel bad labelling them as ‘losers’ though.

(No-one will actually lose out on this title).

Let’s go for: Non-gainers!

 

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  • The Independent Bookshop

 

I know my shop will be discounting the book, probably more in line with Blackwell’s 25% discount.

Hopefully people will appreciate the offer, even though the price will be higher than average.

Realistically I don’t think selling the book at full price is an option. I’d be interested to find out if any shops out there are going for full price and how this works out for them.

Whatever price Indies choose, it will feel like their customers are paying a large premium to buy the book in their shop.

This can make all the sales a bit tricky: on the one hand, there is gratitude for the customer’s loyalty, on the other hand there is slight guilt, because the customer is forced into making a charitable donation towards your business.

I’m calling it guiltitude.

 

One thing is certain. I’ll have to put up with a lot of people saying:

Ooh. I got mine for ……… pounds at Asda.

That’s a bit expensive. 

and

I bet you’re doing well from this.

(There’s always one of them!)

 

No Indie will lose money over this book as such, but I’m sure, for most if not all of us, it will feel like a lost sales opportunity, almost as if the book has been completely taken out of contention.

Out of all parties, I feel Indie Bookshops have the least to gain.

So, let’s call us: Significant Non-gainers!

For shops that are struggling financially, this book is unlikely to be your saviour.

 

 

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Deep Discounting: 

 

It may be worth re-iterating at this stage that larger shops get better discounts from publishers than small shops.

This is not something I have a problem with.

If I opened another 300 branches (and it’s very unlikely as it would take well over 1000 years at my current rate) I would expect a better discount.

If you order 2000 copies, you would expect a better deal than if you ordered 10.

It is what large retailers subsequently do with these favorable discounts that is a concern i.e. passing them directly on to the public, and there seems to be no going back on this issue unfortunately. 

The Book of Dust is actually the tip of the iceberg, rather than an isolated incident, when it comes to discounting of new titles. If anything, discounting of new titles is getting deeper . 

A quick look at a few of the deals recently being offered to consumers buying books on-line seems to back this up.

The following were all prices I found being offered to the public in the actual week of publication or within 4 weeks of publication.

(Rrp = recommended retail price.)

 

Hairy Dieters Go Veggie (pb) Orion rrp 14.99

Book People (4.99) (66% discount)

Amazon (4.00) (73% discount)

Five Get Beach Body Ready (HB) Quercus rrp 7.99

Book People (2.99) (63% discount)

Amazon (2.99) (63% discount)

Sarah Perry –  Essex Serpent (pb) Serpent’s Tail rrp 8.99

Amazon (2.99) (67% discount)

Brendan Cox – Jo Cox: More In Common (HB) Two Roads/Hodder rrp 16.99

Book People (6.00) (65% discount)

Amazon (6.99) (59% discount)

For good measure, Amazon are offering second-hand copies of this book from 2.74 (effectively 84% off the cover price) and many copies of the paperback export edition, not available in the UK (yeah right) from 7.66.

 

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These four books tell us a lot about the high discounts offered to on-line retailers, who it has to be said, do not have to put up with high rents and business rates associated with Town Centres and retail streets. 

If Amazon are offering 73% on the new Hairy Dieters book, you can be sure the publishers (Orion) will have given them a discount higher than 73%. 

(If not, then somebody is worse at Maths than me.)

This is a pretty astonishing deal on a new title, and one which enables the on-line retailer to sell to the public at a discount which is significantly larger then Indie bookshops receive in the first place from publishers. An Indie bookshop would receive about 40-45% discount from the publisher.  

Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent was a guaranteed bestseller in paperback if ever there was one, so why this ended up being sold to a retailer at more than 67% discount is anyone’s guess.

These kind of mega-bargains may work in the short-term for the publisher, Amazon/Book People and the consumer, but with what long-term effect?

I wonder if new books have ever been quite as devalued as they are in current times.   

As a consumer, I can find, in a matter of seconds, all the Harry Potter paperbacks and both Yuval Noah Harari books, again in paperback, for sale with more than 60% off the cover price.

These you would think would be Indie Bookshop staple sellers and not titles that warrant selling off to any degree.

 

 

Remaindered Books: 

 

There is a longstanding model in the book trade where books are sold off to Bargain Bookshops (remaindered).

This usually happens nine months or so after publication.

This is not a bad thing, as publishers can clear stock (albeit cheaply) that is taking up warehouse space and is unlikely to sell at this stage.

This system is also good for moving on books which have been returned in large numbers from bookshops, or titles where a last-minute pre-Christmas reprint for instance hasn’t paid off.

As a Bookshop Owner, it’s not uncommon to notice a book in a Bargain Bookshop which we still stock at full price.

This sometimes leads to a panic-stricken phone call to the shop, and a frantic volley of instructions:

Abort. Abort. The Chris Evans autobiography has been remaindered! Throw it in a box. Request immediate return.

 

What we seem to be seeing now though, is books being effectively remaindered on publication and available at Bargain Bookshop prices right from the word go.

In these cases, Indie bookshops cannot compete.

As we have seen, a brand new book my shop bought in at 40-45% discount can be on sale to the consumer elsewhere at 72% discount.

 

Is the answer for bookshops to sell more backlist titles? Well, yes and no.

A simultaneous de-valuing of backlist titles is also taking place, where we encounter books getting sold off cheaply to Book Clubs at even better discounts.

A current example of this might be the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid books all being available in a set for 1.00 each.

(I’m not going to tell you where. This post is fast becoming an advert for everyone else’s super-deals!)

This works out at just over 85% discount per book. Shops cannot compete with this.

If you want to read about the negative effect that Book Club deals have on authors, read this fascinating article by author/illustrator James Mayhew.

Many of these editions, rather than being overstock, are in fact specially printed by the publishers to sell cheaply.

We sell Wimpy Kid books for 6.99 each. At least we try to.

 

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Unsell-able Books

 

With each passing year, there seem to be more books and categories of books that are just plain un-sellable in Indie Bookshops due to devaluation:

 

  • Cookery Bestsellers:

Do you know anyone who has bought a hardback cookery bestseller at full price recently? No. Me neither.

Spending 26.00 pounds on a Jamie Oliver book must be the very definition of “sucker” these days.

 

  • The Guinness Book of Records:

This has a laughable 20.00 pound cover price that no-one in their right mind pays.

The book itself should probably be in The Guinness Book of Records as the most persistently cheapened book.

 

  • Certain imprints/publishers:

A customer recently picked up a hardback and said out loud:

Oh it’s Dorling Kindersley: I can always buy these cheap.

She has a point. I have often seen Dorling Kindersley hardbacks on sale in the supermarket or at WHSmith Service Stations branches for a lot less than we buy them for. 

 

  • Best-selling paperback fiction:

As with the Essex Serpent paperback (above), most bestselling paperbacks can be bought on-line at half price or less, and people know this. 

Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad would be other recent examples where this is the case. 

The price to the consumer is now lower than it was with all those 3-for-2 deals that used to prevail in the book industry, and which themselves were difficult for Indies to compete with. 

 

  • New Hardback Fiction/Non-Fiction:

Most hardback fiction these days is over-priced by the publisher in the full knowledge that 50% of the price is going to be knocked off it by retailers.

Latest hardbacks by the following authors are all available very cheaply:

 

    • Diana Gabaldon (rrp 20.00 available new at 9.58)
    • Paula Hawkins (rrp 20.00 available new at 9.99)
    • Alison Weir (rrp 18.99 available new at 6.99)
    • Peter May (rrp 18.99 available new at 5.99)

 

You can see why my shop doesn’t sell much hardback fiction.

In fact we actually do better with newer authors in hardback, where magically, the publishers manage to keep the cover prices down to 12.99 or 14.99. How do they do that? 

As for new non-fiction, the third Ella Macfarlane (Deliciously Ella) book was cynically priced recently at 25.00 in the full knowledge that no-one will pay it. The first two books in the series were 20.00 pounds.

Current price on Amazon: 6.99 (72% discount). 

I could go on……. 

 

  • Books that are being sold early elsewhere: 

In a previous post, I highlighted how Waterstones sold the latest Liz Pichon – Tom Gates hardback at 50% discount for five days before its official embargoed publication date i.e. the date when most Indie Bookshops began to sell it.

Waterstones seem to be given complete free rein to do this while publishers (Scholastic in this case), The Bookseller’s Association, authors and the book trade in general turn a convenient blind eye. 

The half-price discounting of new titles in itself can stop a book from being sold in an Indie Bookshop, now seen to be an expensive option. 

The blatant early selling of these same titles just adds insult to injury.

Sorry to keep banging the same drum here but this situation is very annoying and unfair. 

I expect Waterstones will at least keep to the actual publication date for La Belle Sauvage, as with it being an Event Publication, they will find themselves under a lot more scrutiny than usual.        

 

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Conclusion:

 

So, only time will tell if I have to drop La Belle Sauvage into this Room 101 of no-sell books.

The major retailers will win the day as usual, largely by behaving like a bunch of Apprentice candidates from Team Ejaculate trying to sell off a festering stockpile of “gourmet” hotdogs three hours after lunchtime, rather than as booksellers launching an important work of fiction.

If only Alan Sugar could drag them all into the boardroom for a large dose of:

What was yer thinking? Practically giving the bloody thing away! Tell me why I shouldn’t get rid of you?

As for me, well, I suspect my shop will sell a few to loyal customers, but not a significant number.

And I guess there are plenty of other books I can sell that are not the subject of a major pricing war.

Maybe it is the job of the Indie Bookshop after all, to recommend new authors: the next Sarah Perry, the next Philip Pullman.

But, and indulge me here, wouldn’t it be fantastic if, just this once, all retailers charged 20.00 pounds for The Book of Dust and we had a completely level playing field?

I wonder how many copies Asda (a wholly owned division of Walmart) would sell then?

 

I seem to have entered a fantasy world of make-believe here (or France) but given that this isn’t going to happen, how does the following scenario sound?

 

  • Jun – Sep 2017

Thousands of pre-orders at half price take place through Waterstones, WHSmith and Amazon.

  • Sep 2017

A month before publication, it is revealed that all copies of the book supplied to Indies will be signed by the author, include an extra original essay, come resplendent with green page-edges and all be accompanied by a special bookmark.

 

Now that might make a difference. David Fickling Publishers take note!

 

Meanwhile back on earth, this October, the book trade is facing up to the prospect of celebrating 22 years since the publication of Northern Lights by selling the new Philip Pullman hardback at a lower average price than the original hardback from 1995.

Now that, to me, seems just as strange as a world populated by daemons and armoured bears.

 

 

While planning this post, the same subject popped up elsewhere (and rightly so) in the form of this eloquent blog by Tamsin Rosewell at Kenilworth Books. The heavy discounting of The Book of Dust is obviously a subject on a lot of Independent Booksellers’ minds, and the more people speak out about it, the better. If you haven’t already, I recommend you read it, and please feel free to consider my own post as a (albeit anonymous) contribution to an ongoing debate.    

 

7 comments on “Philip Pullman: His Discounted Materials”

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more on this. Economically bonkers for all concerned apart from the customers, most of whom would pay full price any way as it’s something they badly want, and indies are by far the worst losers. Many commiserations, for what they’re worth.

  2. I agree with every word you say. The situation we’ve collectively allowed to develop is absurd, destructive, and unsustainable.

  3. Authors % is discounted in line with discounts given by publishers, unless they have negotiated a floor for their discounting. This race to the bottom benefits no one, even the buyer. If they want to read good books they need to invest in authors, pay the piper for the tune.
    When discounting is really fierce authors can receive more per book is PLR than from sales.
    It makes no sense, and over the years i have concluded that publishers just aren’t very good at economics, and don’t have the imagination to understand where the race to the bottom will lead.
    We need a return to the net book agreement, which in the long run will even benefit the treasury as everyone earns more. And we also need an investment in libraries so those who genuinely can’t afford to pay can borrow.
    Philip Pullman, can we join voices to try to push for a return of the net book agreement?

    • Investment in authors is a very important subject, which I didn’t really think about in my original post. Thank you for that. Though there would be some support for a return to the Net Book Agreement, it is difficult to imagine returning to it from the current position. It would be like returning to Sunday Closing – too much water has passed under the bridge I suspect. I’m sure all the big (Retail) players would be very reluctant. However, it is interesting to look across the channel at France where they never got into this position in the first place. French MPs passed a bill to stop Amazon from discounting by more than 5% or charging free postage.
      https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/03/french-mps-bill-amazon-discount-books
      As far as I know, this is still the case in 2017 and the retail price of books is protected over there. I wonder if there are more Independent Bookshops in France than here, and more authors being paid fairly too. I don’t know the answer to this!

  4. Unfortunately for us at Roe River Books its been this way for a while. I can’t remember the last time I was excited by a new book release (except on a personal level). At least in Ireland the supermarkets don’t seem as keen these days on book discounting. Dunnes Stores in Dundalk recently stopped selling books at all. The return of the net book agreement would be great but what odds? On another note I’m slightly unsure if La Belle Sauvage will sell as well as expected. I’ve never sensed the same sort of affection for His Dark Materials as say Potter or Game of Thrones.

    • We do see affection for His Dark Materials from those who have read it, but you’re right, I don’t think it’s been kept in the public eye quite as much as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones through marketing, merchandise, TV etc. This does mean there is a whole generation out there that hasn’t read any of them though, which is perhaps good news for us bookshops as maybe we can steer a few people the way of the original paperbacks while the rest of the booktrade goes discount crazy on the new hardback. We shall see!

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