A little rant about marketing books like cornflakes

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.

215 Bogof 2Have you seen books promoted with a BOGOF offer? Buy one get one free. It makes me mutter out loud in the aisles of the supermarket.

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.

Hay-on-Wye Bookshop July 2009 by Jonathan Billinger via Wiki Commons

Hay-on-Wye Bookshop July 2009 by Jonathan Billinger via Wiki Commons

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.

Buying books

215 obama-at-prairie-lights

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.

Paris Bookshop September 2008 by THOR via Wiki Commons

Paris Bookshop September 2008 by THOR via Wiki Commons

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.

215 BOGOFPerhaps the increase in the number of literary prizes is the publishers’ way of supporting initiatives to promote the sale of good books.

Euston Road, London

Euston Road, London

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.

Related posts

Sam Jordison in the Guardian in 2010 laid out the damage done to publishers and booksellers by the ending of the NBA.

To receive emails about future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.


Filed under Books, Publishing our book, Reading

11 Responses to A little rant about marketing books like cornflakes

  1. Excellent piece and I so agree. The BOGOF offers always seem to be on the latest bestsellers and never on the more obscure stuff I want – well, at least in the supermarkets. Waterstones sometimes stretch things a bit and include more interesting stuff, but if I’m honest I spend more time browsing amongst obscure second hand works so these promotions really aren’t for me!

    • Caroline

      I hardly knew what Black Friday was, let alone how it would be pushed down our throats when I conceived, wrote and scheduled this post. But it turns out that serendipity has done it again. Yes, like you I often browse second hand shops. We have a good Oxfam book shop in Totnes and I like Skoob near where I used to work in Bloomsbury. Rarely buy in shops. Which is bad really because I suppose it would contribute to supporting writers and a good publishing trade if I did. What to do, what to do?
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Eileen

    You read a book and everything changes – yes I remember kissing a book once as it introduced me to a new learning concept – about dialogue I think – that changed my outlook totally.
    I never mind how much a book costs as I know the struggle that has gone into the writing. That publishers are not prepared to take risks is a really important point.
    There are books that I’ll always keep as I loved them so much but recycling is great so that people can buy obscure books in the local charity shop.
    Well done Caroline – an interesting theme this week – again!

    • Caroline

      Book kissing. Perhaps you could write about that for the blog??
      But the idea does capture the excitement and the personal change that books can bring. And yes, that’s why we need innovative publishing. Well done the indies, again!
      Thanks for the comment Eileen.

  3. Eileen

    I am really enjoying NOT buying anything today, even a book – black Friday is such an inappropriate and disgusting idea imported from the States – it should be banned!

    • Caroline

      I had to have Black Friday explained to me – by an excellent article by Lucy Mangan in the Guardian. I hate it too now. And today I only bought some ciabattas for lunch with my sister. I forgot the lemons. No doubt we will have to hear about the record sales on the news for a few days. Horrible.

  4. Caroline, you’re so right, we’ve got so used to being able to buy discounted books, the full price often seems expensive. This puts small publishers at a significant disadvantage in bookshops as, with higher unit costs, they often can’t afford such deductions. I wrote a little while ago on my blog about how pricing a book to low can lead to complications:
    And I’m not so convinced it is that different to food – despite some people having to rely on food banks, the news reports yesterday were telling us about mountains of food waste contributing significantly to global warming. As someone who is nifty with leftovers and composts the rest, I find that appalling!

    • Caroline

      You are so right Anne. I was shocked at the longterm effects of food waste too.
      And I am beginning to worry that I should always pay full price for books. Back top the library!

  5. I never buy books from charity shops because it undermines the business model which pays writers for their work. Charity books shops also undermine book shops trying to compete on the High Street without the benefits of lowered business rates and other fiscal advantages. Increasingly charity shops are filled with BOGOF and BOGOHP fodder anyway.

    • Caroline

      Hi Nicola, you are probably right about charity shops being full of the unwanted results of the discounting practices of the large booksellers. I don’t think I can be as strong minded as you about this. Partly because Eileen and I were only paid royalties on the sale price, often discounted. We did not make a fortune.
      Yet we want people to read books, so it’s a bit of a puzzle.
      Thanks for contributing.

  6. Terry Tyler

    Absolutely, totally, a round of applause. I have nothing to add to this (you’ve said it all!), except that sometimes, when I’ve just spent a hard 6 or 8 months (and I mean hard) working on a book, I put it on Amazon for my usual £1.99 (and of course I don’t get all of that, by any means), and I think “£2? Really?” But if I put it on for much more than that it won’t sell. As you say, people have come to expect books for next to nothing. Good thing I write fast 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *