Everything has its value and anything can be commodified, and marketised, even books. But selling books in the same way as cornflakes or cat food is disturbing. It’s a sign of some serious problems in the business of book production.
The Net Book Agreement
It all started with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. The NBA allowed the price of books to be agreed between publishers and book sellers, and required the sellers to abide by the agreed price. It lasted 90 years. They still have such an agreement in France and Germany.
In 1991 the NBA was challenged by Dillons which wanted to sell books at a discount and other sellers joined in. Eventually in 1997 the NBA was judged a restrictive practice. The Office of Fair Trading claims that book sales have risen 30% since then. The abolition of the NBA has resulted in the slow reduction on the number of independent bookshops, and the concentration of most sales in the hands of a few big stores, notably Waterstone’s and Amazon.
Sales of books may be up but writers’ incomes are down. Mean income for writers surveyed in 2013 was £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when it had been £12,370 according to ALCS (Authors Licensing and Collecting Society). Writers get their income from royalties, a percentage of the price at sale not the cover price. Books are rarely sold at the cover price. My own income from writing is much, much less than £11,000. Few writers are able to devote all their working time to writing.
The margins for the publisher have reduced, some appear to have economised by letting the editors go. They play safe with the books they publish, taking fewer risks and promoting books they are sure will sell. The shelf life of books have been reduced, so have current lists and back catalogues. Even so several smaller publishers have been swallowed by the bigger houses. Thank goodness that independent publishers are holding their own and giving us books of quality rather than just backing sure-sellers.
It’s the quantity Stupid
Of course it’s a good thing that more books are being sold, but what matters more than the quantity is the quality. We have come to expect to buy books very cheaply. Like our food and milk. But if we value low cost above everything then we will get poor quality, adulteration, very angry farmers and very disappointed writers and readers.
All books are not the same
This is the ranty bit. Books are not the same. One cornflake is pretty much like another cornflake. One book is not like another. Book marketeers love the idea of a series because it suggests that if you read one book by Percy Smith you will want the next book by Percy Smith or one with a very similar cover indicating the same genre.
And we need experimental, innovative, imaginative books. The market today discourages risk-taking and innovation by publishers. They no longer have the margins to cover losses on a book they think is worth publishing but may not be a commercial success. Commercial success indicates popularity and is not a measure of literary quality.
We want, we need people to buy books. I remember being in Stoke Newington Bookshop in 1995, browsing away as you do. Two young women were in there with me (this was in the old premises which was more like a corridor than a room) and so we were constantly squeezing past each other. One young woman announced, ‘I’ve never bought a book in my life’. I was so struck by this statement that I made a note of it. I hope she isn’t still able to make that claim.
And then, a couple of years later, I overheard a student at the University of London saying, no doubt in relation to her studies, perhaps an essay she was writing, ‘You read a book and that changes everything.’ I would have liked to introduce these two young women.
I am surprised but pleased when I see a book advertised on billboards, on the bus stands or on the underground in London.
And then rather shocked when novels, usually thrillers, are promoted with something very much like a film trailer on tv.
And now I am expecting to find a free book in my packet of cornflakes.
Sam Jordison in the Guardian in 2010 laid out the damage done to publishers and booksellers by the ending of the NBA.
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