Back in July I wrote a blogpost about the new Philip Pullman book La Belle Sauvage, my main gripe being that Independent Bookshops such as my own were being completely priced out of selling any copies, due to the aggressive pre-publication discounting of larger retailers with deep pockets.
The main perpetrators of this price war were Waterstones, Amazon, Foyles and WHSmith who were all offering the book at 50% discount, which is a better discount than my shop receives from the publisher in the first place.
My comments about the level of discounting both on this, and across the book trade, prompted a reply from Philip Pullman himself:
I agree with every word you say. The situation we’ve collectively allowed to develop is absurd, destructive, and unsustainable.
A lot of other Indie booksellers expressed similar sentiments too.
At the end of the post, I suggested that the publishers David Fickling Books might like to help Indie Bookshops by offering us an exclusive signed edition of La Belle Sauvage with “green-edge pages” as this might divert customers back in our direction and away from the super-discounters.
Well, my suggestion came true (kind of) but not in the way I had anticipated.
David Fickling Books did indeed produce a signed edition of La Belle Sauvage finished in gold and silver foil with a newly commissioned cover illustration, and limited to 5000 copies.
Unfortunately (for me) this edition was for exclusive sale in Waterstones.
The price was 35.00 pounds and all 5000 sold out pre-publication.
IMHO, this is what is happening here:
- Waterstones have flooded the market with cheap pre-ordered editions of La Belle Sauvage, successfully seeing off all competition from Indie bookshops.
- With this done, they then sell an exclusive premium signed edition of the same book, with the collusion of both publisher and author. Obviously there is no need to reduce the price of this edition as, in this instance, there is no competition.
- This leads to a cool 175,000 pounds passing through the till, and a lot of marginalised Indie Booksellers (that’s me) left for dead in their wake.
I can only congratulate Waterstones for pulling off a business masterstroke here that I think most drug cartels would be enormously proud of.
Jesse and Walt, eat your heart out.
This example shows us how the Publishing Industry tends to operate in 2017, with everything fixed in favour of Waterstones.
Amazon (and sometimes the Supermarkets) are usually cast as the cartoon baddy, with Indie Bookshops an irrelevance.
It pains me to say it but I am very disappointed that Philip Pullman saw fit to favour Waterstones over Indie Bookshops by signing high-value exclusive editions for their profit only.
Philip Pullman was well aware that Waterstones were at the forefront of the pricing war, which has contributed to what he calls the “absurd, destructive and unsustainable” situation, but still chose to favour them.
What’s more, I would have thought it takes a very long time to sign 5000 books.
Just how long is something I decided to find out:
Myself and a willing cohort (“you speak, you die”) set up a little signing experiment in the back room of the shop.
With timer at the ready, I signed 50 sheets of paper with a close approximation of Philip Pullman’s signature, including the underline.
We assumed that when it came to the actual publication, the signed sheets of paper would be:
a) inserted into the book post-signing, which would mean less time spent opening books to the title page and
b) passed to the book-signer by someone else, which again would save time.
With my 50 “Philip Pullman” signatures, all performed at what seemed to be a pretty intensive rate (at least to me), I averaged 5.3 seconds per signature.
So at this speed, it would take 7 hours and 22 minutes to sign 5000.
For a second opinion, I asked a publisher friend how much time her publisher would generally allow for a bulk book signing.
Obviously this depends on the author, but she thought that 700 books per hour would be a typical rate.
This works out as 7 hours and 8 minutes to sign 5000.
These are two fairly consistent results.
Neither of them take into account:
- wrist fatigue
- toilet breaks
- the partaking of light refreshments or
- that familiar urge to watch an episode of Made In Chelsea with immediate effect.
I mean, who knows what might come along to interrupt a lengthy signing session such as this?
I think we are safe to say however, that with all these factors taken into account, seven hours is going to be an extremely conservative estimate when it comes to the signing of 5000 books.
Did Philip Pullman have over seven hours to spare signing stock for Indie Bookshops?
I haven’t been aware of any Indie Bookshops (so far) being able to obtain signed regular copies of La Belle Sauvage, something which I’m sure would help sales, especially given the higher price we are all selling the book at.
I and my staff asked the publisher about signed editions on three occasions pre-publication and each time were told there would be none available to us.
In the meantime, Waterstones are now busy taking orders for a signed exclusive edition of Philip Pullman’s forthcoming essay collection Daemon Voices, also published by David Fickling Books.
Many more hours of the author’s time are being put aside for the exclusive financial benefit of Waterstones and to the detriment of Indie Bookshops.
And just in case Waterstones haven’t had enough Pullman-related exclusives, Scholastic have weighed in too, producing hardback editions of the first three books in the His Dark Materials series, all with unique Chris Wormell covers that match the new book, and only for sale at Waterstones.
Again, this is all extra private income being raked in by Waterstones from the Philip Pullman gravy train, with no need to discount, and adequately compensating them for selling the La Belle Sauvage at a virtual loss for so many months.
Where is the compensation for Indie Bookshops?
If a vociferous, sympathetic, well-known author like Philip Pullman can do nothing to actively help Indies on the publication of his long-awaited book, (indirectly, he is actually hindering us), then who the hell can?
The occasional article about bringing back the Net Book Agreement or fixed book prices is not going to help us:
a) It is not what a lot of Indies want and
b) You might as well try to bring back the shilling. That ship has sailed.
It is worth pointing out that Indie Bookshops do have access to exclusive editions during Independent Bookshop Week, which is loosely based on the successful Record Store Day in the Music Industry.
(Waterstones get 51 weeks of exclusives. We get one.)
To put this exclusivity into context though, this year, one of the exclusive editions was a Phillip Pullman essay called Imaginary Friends, an excerpt from Daemon Voices (Yep. The forthcoming signed exclusive-at-Waterstones book).
This Indie exclusive was published by David Fickling Books with a retail price of 2.50 and Indie Bookshops were afforded a four-week head start over other retailers.
Without wanting to seem ungrateful, compared to an exclusive limited, signed, numbered edition of a 35 pound book which half the world has been waiting for, a four-week head start on a 2.50 unsigned non-fiction mini-pamphlet is just an example of how Indie Bookshops have to eat scraps off the publishing floor.
If publishers think they are doing enough for us with this kind of offering, then think again.
On their website, David Fickling Books proudly champion their own Independent status:
Independence gives us the autonomy to follow our instincts and back our own judgments.
Unfortunately, supporting other Independent Businesses didn’t appear to play a part in either their instinct or their judgement when it came to their biggest book for many a year.
One of the shop owners I talk to mentioned to me that he has often asked publishers for exclusive signed editions for Indie Bookshops, but that the answer tends to be:
There isn’t the demand.
From a publisher’s point of view, an exclusive edition for Indie Bookshops would involve bulk e-mails and a lot of subsequent collating on the publisher’s part (work, basically).
A Waterstones exclusive can be agreed with a couple of phone calls I expect.
This is where Centralised Buying has the advantage.
If only Indie Bookshops had a centralised equivalent through which we could arrange and order exclusive editions of books.
Well funnily enough, we do.
Bertrams and Gardners are exactly that: huge centralised operations stocking books for Indie shops.
I can’t see any reason why either of our wholesaler friends couldn’t come up with a similar arrangement to Waterstones, but on our behalf:
- Pick a forthcoming guaranteed seller.
- Contact publisher.
- Arrange to order and have printed 5000 exclusive signed editions.
- Sell to Indie bookshops.
There would surely be a huge demand for this kind of arrangement from Indie Bookshops and it would be a good way for us to claw back sales on big titles.
Bertrams and Gardners already dip their toe into the world of signed books as it is.
There is a certain risk factor involved for them, as signed books (unlike their unsigned equivalents) are unreturnable.
However Bertrams have had 145 signed copies of Nick Knowles’ Proper Healthy Food hanging around since the start of the year.
That book must surely be more of a risk than the kind of limited edition signed bestseller I am talking about.
Some titles, as with the signed Philip Pullman, are just a guaranteed sale I would have thought.
175000 pounds could really go quite a long way, spread among even a large number of Indie Bookshops.
I wonder if anyone from Bertrams or Gardners reads this blog (or is it just Philip Pullman and my Mum?)
If either of the wholesalers took the plunge here, then they would gain a nice little advantage over their competitor too.
Imagine customers flocking to Independent Bookshops exclusively, in order to buy an edition of a major book.
Sounds crazy I know.
Maybe this is just another one of my wistful dreams that probably won’t come true, like the one with Ben Whishaw and the cherry yoghurt.
This situation with La Belle Sauvage is not the only example of the publishing industry providing a very unlevel playing field, and favouring Waterstones’ interests over those of Indie Bookshops.
Without wanting to repeat myself too much (oh go on then, I will, just a bit) I have highlighted in a previous blogpost how Waterstones:
a) Defy embargo dates.
I told of how Waterstones Bath had a half-price promotion on the new Tom Gates title for the entire five days before its official embargoed publication date, which was the date when the wonderful (and honest) Indie Bookshop Toppings started selling it in the same city.
This promotion had the full backing, or maybe just the turning of a blind eye, of Scholastic Publishers.
b) Get exclusive early editions of books.
Beetle Queen by MG Leonard was available in Waterstones four weeks before Indies were allowed to sell it.
This was a special decorated edition with patterns on the page edges.
We had to put up with four weeks of the author jauntily tweeting pictures of herself signing special-edition copies in Waterstones to the delight of many a happy shiny child, while us stockless Indies waited joylessly on the sidelines like some kind of bookselling lower caste.
Eventually we were sent the non-decorated version.
(Not the author’s fault I should point out. The publishers Chicken House Books, owned by Scholastic, and Waterstones chose to put her in this position.)
James Daunt likes to talk about “level playing fields” when it comes to Amazon and taxes.
I’d like a level-playing field when it comes to Waterstones and the special treatment afforded to them by publishers.
There are over 900 Indie Bookshops in the UK.
Yes, we outnumber Waterstones by 3 to 1.
(Bring on the revolution, comrades.)
But who represents the rights of Indie Bookshops in the UK?
That would be the Bookseller’s Association, wouldn’t it?
The Bookseller’s Association looks after the interests of all its members.
Waterstones pay a lot of money yearly to the BA. Membership fees are calculated on shop turnover so they are practically stakeholders.
The BA wouldn’t want to cross its biggest financial contributor.
I may be wrong but I can’t see the BA helping Indie Bookshops when it comes to either publishers’ favouritism of Waterstones at Indies’ expense or Waterstones’ blatant flouting of the BA’s own embargo agreements.
The BA have recently campaigned about:
- Business Rates (and rightly so) which affects Waterstones.
- Amazon (the common enemy) and their tax arrangements. Again, in the interest of Waterstones.
- Publishers not putting invoices in boxes. This is not something that bothers me greatly but again, I imagine that this affects all BA members including Waterstones. Certainly those not affected have nothing to lose from this campaign.
I very much doubt the BA would want to look into either the highly-uncompetitive Waterstones/David Fickling/Philip Pullman deals or Waterstones’ embargo-dodging.
Both these issues cast one of their own paying members, and a large one at that, in an unfavourable light.
As Indie Bookshops, we are on our own here.
There is no-one to turn to.
You could argue that Waterstones are perfectly within their rights to ask for exclusive signed editions and early publication dates.
It’s a free market after all.
The publishers see little dollar signs in front of their eyes, agree to anything Waterstones ask of them, and the general feeling is that as long as books are selling somewhere, and some sales have been taken away from Amazon and brought back to the high street or clawed back from the digital download market, then all must be well with the world.
Never mind the Indies.
This would be fine if there were enough publishers or authors out there thinking:
Do you know what? I’m going to let Indie Bookshops have all the signed copies of this book and all the special editions. Let’s give them a four-week headstart over Waterstones with this major children’s title. I’m going to stick up for the little guy.
I’m not convinced this is happening though.
I don’t believe that publishers really want to get on the wrong side of Waterstones. They are very reliant on them both for sales and author events.
Any publisher who provides Indie Bookshops with quality limited editions or a headstart on a major book release runs the risk of incurring the wrath of Waterstones.
This could then impact on future sales, promotions or events with them.
I am happy to be proved wrong.
I can see the importance of having a profit-making Book Chain on the Nation’s high streets. I get that.
But I believe the balance of power in the Book Industry is now too far tipped towards Waterstones, who are given carte blanche to do as they like.
The publication of La Belle Sauvage should have been a great occasion and a much-needed financial boost for Indie Bookshops.
However, it is Waterstones that have been allowed to walk away from it with a bumper windfall, thanks to the actions of an “Independent” publisher and an Indie-championing author.
This, and the widespread discounting in general by (mostly) bricks-and-mortar bookshops, have combined to entirely knock Indie Bookshops out of the La Belle Sauvage market, leaving us frustrated, powerless and ultimately empty-handed.
Such is life in 2017 for the lantern bearers of civilisation.
By the way, if you’re interested, we sold three copies of La Belle Sauvage on the launch day at a heavily discounted price.
Let’s look on the bright side: that was three more than we were expecting to sell.
|Update (27/10/17): Heloise Wood has written an excellent follow-up to this blogpost for The Bookseller.
There you can read reaction from fellow booksellers, Philip Pullman and publisher David Fickling.
|Further Update (21/11/17): Another fantastic follow-up article from Heloise Wood for The Bookseller, announcing plans by Penguin Random House Children’s and David Fickling Books to release 5000 La Belle Sauvage bookplates (plus a limited edition print) to Independent Bookshops as part of their “special plans.”
You can also read lots of reaction (best described as “mixed”) from Indie Bookshops too.
Personally, I appreciate all the effort, time and expense that has gone into this response from both author and publisher.
I am however very sceptical about whether any of these “special plans” were devised for Indie Bookshops from the start. They seem to be a direct reaction to our outraged response at the initial Belle Sauvage marketing plan/Waterstones cash cow as described above, and a tacit admission that mistakes were made. I wish someone would maybe call a spade a spade here and say:
“We f***ed up, I’m sorry. This is our belated attempt to make amends.”
rather than pretending this was all part of some grand marketing scheme.
By the time Indie Bookshops receive the bookplates and prints, La Belle Sauvage will have been released for roughly six weeks, so of course, our first six weeks of valued customers will have missed out completely. Certainly they can bring their copies back to the shop (if they find out about the bookplates that is, and while stocks last) and we can add the bookplate to their book retrospectively, but then I guess there is nothing to stop customers that have bought the book from other shops (or indeed on-line) doing this too. We cannot insist on a receipt in this instance, as who the hell would keep a receipt for a book that they are very unlikely to bring back in the first place, indeed a book that half the world has been anticipating for many years?
So I predict a few operational headaches on the horizon, though I’m sure some extra sales will be generated too.
How different it all could have been if the bookplates and prints had been provided to Indie Bookshops pre-publication, with us all having a chance to use them in our initial publicity.
But then, no-one was really thinking about us or making “special plans” for us back then, were they??