Thursday, November 22, 2007

Taking the Hachette to firm sale

Writers Guild strike in America is intensifying - apparently an unnamed Hollywood studio has lost a $3 million contract because of it to make a film - that will teach them to honour writers a bit more won't it! I am afraid I do not have much sympathy for these people at all, who get rich on the backs of my colleagues across the pond and give them absolutely sweet fa. It is about time these people realised that contrary to popular belief, they need us far more than we need them .... Without writers they would all be out of business fast.

Support from the strike though seems to be coming from all quarters. USA Today reports that motorists driving past Universal Studios on Tuesday afternoon (yesterday) were treated to a cavalcade of stars almost as impressive as the Golden Globes ceremony. These stars were picketing in support of the Writers Guild strike which is now in its 9th day. As long at the strike continues the actors after all cannot work either, and they too are losing money. Mind you, most of them can afford to ...

The entire cast of Brothers and Sisters were there along with Executive Producer and writer Greg Berlanti as well as Matthew Perry from Friends and stars from The Office. Tonight show host Jay Leno rode past on his motorcycle to add his support and Ben Stiller walked down the hill from Universal Studios where he has been directing comedy show Tropic Thunder with a week of shooting still to go. He said, "As a DGA, SAG and WGA member, this is a very tough time. Movies that are in production get affected because no script changes can happen. We had to make sure any rewrites were done before the strike, but changes happen every day. So, I'm saying right now, if this movie's not funny enough next year, it's because of this strike. The writers have always been the ones who didn't get respect. In a way, I wish all the unions could have gone out at the same time, because it would have sent an even stronger message. Studios need to take this seriously." Good for him ! Perhaps writers in the UK should get together and refuse to allow their books into the chain stores until we get a better deal as well ...

This may not in fact be necessary, since environmental issues seem to be coming very much to the forefront in publishing this week, and one of the most overriding issues is of course the vast amounts of books which are pulped each year as publishers print far too many of them. Publishing News reporrs that the book trade's cross party Environmental Action Group, which is chaired by Penguin General MD Helen Fraser has agreed a target for the industry to reduce its carbon emissions by 10% by 2015. The group also believes that environmental initiatives should form part of the criteria for publisher and retailer of the year categories at the British Book Industry Awards, as organised by Publishing News, and also the Bookseller Retail Awards.

A working party is apparently satrting to look at issues such as transport, packaging and paper, as well as perhaps more cruciallym, long term issues connected to the supply chain, in particular, returns.

Last weeks Publishing News reported that the UK's largest publishing group, Hatchette Livre has released an ethical and environmental policy in which it has pledged to start selling its backlist consumer titles on a “firm sale basis”, in consultation with its customers (for this read book sellers) by the end of 2008. The policy document explains as I have said so many times, that the printing and multiple transportation of books that may end up being pulped is both costly and environmentally damaging and they are committed to reducing this practice. They go on to say that the estimated cummulative saving in terms of printing, paper, processing and transport will be in excess of one million books a year.

By the end of 2009, the group also hopes to have moved most all its trade publishing onto Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper, and to have made major progress in the same direction for their educational and illustrated publishing. The policy will be introduced gradually across the company's UK publishers starting with Little Brown at the beginning of 2008 and then other UK publishers, including Headline, Hodder & Stoughton, Hodder Education and Orion. I wonder how many of these backlist titles will then be maintained via print on demand. It will be interesting to see what happens here.

The response from book sellers, according to The Bookseller has been mixed. One more enlightened soul indie bookseller Clive Keeble, says that he hopes other publishers will follow suit, as the current system of sale or return is 'archaic and wasteful'. He goes on to say that it is poor business to expect others to subsidise one's business. I like this man and must find out what book shop he runs so that he can stock my book!

However, other booksellers expressed misgivings about what it would mean in terms of range. Waterstone's are said to be circumspect, stating that while they are committed to investigating ways of reducing returns, they had to ensure that any action the industry takes does not threaten specialist booksellers' ability to stock and sell deep range. That is rich I must say, since it due to the business activities of the chain store demanding more and more discounts so that they can have 3 for 2 promotions and so on that the majority of independents are going out of business in the first place!

The downside is that it may lead book sellers to be more wary of stocking back list titles, including mine. As Sheila O'Reilly, owner of indie Dulwich Books says, book sellers have two ways of buying stock - from wholesalers or direct from publishers. If they buy from the publishers direct they get less discount, usually with sale or return; if they buy from from wholesalers we get more discount and the right to return between 5% and 10% of the previous three months' sales. What this in practise means is that they have to have a 5 percent error rate. If firm sale comes in across the board, such book sellers then will be a lot more cautious about ordering such back lists (and books like mine) that do not have a provemn sales record.

Is is fair though to expect as Clive Keeble said, others to subside your business. Personally alhtough I take Sheila O'Reilly's point, I think not. Nobody else has a 5 percent error rate written into their supply contract, so why should book sellers be any different?

More worrying, book sellers may start to demand higher discounts to compensate for this loss, whihc is a move that small presses would strongly resist. Chris Rusbhy, Director of Bertrams, the UK's second largest wholesaler made the point that it is all very well to have green credentials, but there would be a saving that goes along with that, and book sellers should be able to share that saving. They are though missing the point - yes there would be savings in terms of less books being printed, but the books that are printed still have to shipped to the wholesaler, packed and then shipped off again, and this costs the same regardless. Personally I think the book sellers are just being greedy - I mean my book cost me nearly £5000 to write over 5 years, during which time I was not earning money elsewhere as I was writing full time. As it stands, who gets what can be broken down as follows:

book seller £6.00
print costs £4.06
wholesaler £2.25
me £1.60
publisher £1.08

This is why I would strongly then resist such a move and why I see parallels between this and the Writers Guild strike, since it is about the writers right (write!) to earn a decent living wage from doing what they do best. Call me old fashioned, but I believe the lions share should always go the person who created the work and not the one who is selling it.

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