Discounted Till We Die

We can't carry on lifing in a Bargain BasementI’m just on the train back from a very interesting (if you are a publisher) Q&A session with James Daunt of Daunt Books and Waterstones (I really miss that apostrophe) fame. In it I learnt three things that got me thinking about the way that we, as publishers, approach publishing, and have come to the conclusion that we may be doing it Poorly.

What follows is a short summary of those three points, followed swiftly by my horribly utopian vision of a better way of doing things (perhaps). I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this, so please do give them to me through comments below, or via Twitter (@robbieguillory).A skeleton, pared to the bone

  1. Waterstones has been pared down to such an extent that there are no more savings to be made.
  2. Individual stores are being encouraged to take curation and discounting into their own hands (curating = they choose what books to have in store, discounting = reducing prices. For instance,central London stores don’t discount, whereas bookshops in poorer areas do display promotions and discounts).
  3. Despite being cut to the bone, Waterstones is still losing money, so the discounts we give to them will have to go up. James Daunt was asked by Sarah Hunt from Saraband whether he thought we could pass that cost on to the consumer by raising our prices, to which he replied that he didn’t why not, but that it really depended on the book and shouldn’t be done lightly.

A lightbulb momentThis last point is what got my inner Poirot working his little grey cells. Why do publishers, who generally don’t sell very much direct to individual human beings, insist on printing the RRP (recommended retail price) on the back or inside front cover of our books? In almost every other retail environment I can think of Sellers choose the price of the product, not Manufacturers, which is really what a Publisher is. Naturally, we have an ideal price, but shouldn’t that be between us and the bookseller? If you own a bookshop in, say, Chelsea, then why not price your paperbacks at £11? The consumers, who surely would be buying online if they wanted the cheapest price, would be able to bear it and would still come to you, because you have a lovely bookshop that does great coffee and is the heart of your community. And if you were a ‘chain of independents’ a la Waterstones, you could sell paperbacks for the cost of a packet of cigarettes in Camden or Middlesborough.

Daunt was lamenting that Waterstones is a minimum wage employer, and maybe that is our fault as publishers, because all we allow booksellers to do is discount, and all we think about is discount, which cheapens the whole experience.A living wage is a fair wage

We could still offer our books to booksellers at a discount of the RRP we believe the book shouldbe sold at. Or, could we not work out the per-unit cost of our books, add a bit for rainy days, and let the people who sell books best (vis. the booksellers) decide what price point their customers would buy at? It sounds like a helluva lot less work all round, no?

Would it not also make author’s experience better? They would know exactly how much of the book’s value they would be getting, would understand better what our production costs are, and that would certainly help lessen the feeling that publishers are out to rip them off.

Now, I know there are problems with this, such as what will happen when Amazon sells books at the price you are selling to them at, but they already do that – whenever you see 60% off a book of ours on Amazon, that is their entire cut. And, of course, it would be highly disruptive, just at a time when everyone is looking for a bit of peace and quiet. All we want is some peace and quiet. Please!I didn’t get a chance to ask Daunt about this, as it was an idea still germinating as I was leaving, but perhaps he will read this and respond on his way back to London.

On a side note, I’m sorry not to have reviewed a book in so many months. I’ve been busy, but hopefully this will be a catalyst to get back on the horse. I also apologise for any grammatical errors herein, as I simply haven’t the time to read this through right now, but want to get it on the blog. Dreadful behaviour abounds.

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