Monday, June 02, 2008

What goes down, must go up!

I know there is hope for the world, and in particular the book world, when I see comments such as those on the blog of Neil Denny, editor in chief of The Bookseller magazine. On his blog, Neil calls for an end to the practise of high discounting in these times of economic uncertainty, in order to protect the interests of both publishers and book sellers. He points out that the price of books, like anything else, can go up as well as down.

During the last decade, since the abolition of the net book price agreement, we have seen the prices of books plummeting, with both book sellers and publishers, not to mention of course authors, working harder and harder for what seems like less and less. When I did my own accounts yesterday, I was shocked to see that despite all my hard work, my income from book sales for 2007-8 was just over £800, which is not a lot to show at all for all that work. Of course it would have been a lot more had the book not been on sale or return for such high discount, but then again, would I have sold as many books as I did? Somehow I think not, and so in the scheme of things, I am still better off, as although I earn less now per book sale, at least I have the chance to make some sales!

Perhaps though for the book trade as a whole, it is time to have a re-think on the discounting issue and begin to charge cover prices again, or at the very least, reduce the discounts that we have in store to a more reasonable level.

Since 2001, the date at which the sales figures first became truly comprehensive, the average sale price for books in the UK has fallen from £7.81 to £7.57. This may not sound a lot, but by the time you factor in inflation, it is clear that the price of books has fallen way less than it should be. In real terms, prices have dropped by almost 20 percent.

It may seem strange to be discussing this move at a time when consumers are already struggling with higher bills and fuel costs, yet as Neil Denny points out, increases such as these are creating a climate where consumers actually expect prices to go up, across the board.

If other businesses pass on the cost of their higher bills to the consumers, then why should the book trade be any different? Books after all need to be printed and shipped around the country (if not the world) and with the way that oil keeps going up, sooner or later, these costs will have to be passed on.

Companies are under pressure, as staff push for wage increases in order to compensate for higher prices. By increasing their own prices, and thereby their profit, book sellers will be in a better position to give their staff that raise, at the same time injecting life into their business which they can use to invest in training and better facilities all round.

Books are vastly underrated in our western society, and absurdly cheap. In a climate where some paperbacks cost less than a pint of beer, a cup of coffee or a magazine, then what does that say about the value that we place upon them? Customers at the store that I work in think nothing of spending £1000 on certain items, yet baulk at the price of books. I can imagine a world without much of what we sell, but I cannot imagine a world without books. Books educate and make us think, they make us laugh and cry, they take us outside of the ordinary realms of our existence, guiding and inspiring us with their wisdom and their insights. The world would be a much poorer place without them.

Lower discounts would be good news for the industry all round, not least of all the small independents, many of whom are struggling to compete with the chains, and let's not forget, are vital to the success of the book trade as a whole.

While the cover prices of certain types of books have crept up in recent years, the cynic in me says that this is in response to high discounting. If a publisher sells to book stores at 50 percent discount, it is in their interests to set higher cover prices, as 50 percent of £8.99 is a lot more than 50 percent of £5.99.

If books were not so heavily discounted and under valued in the first place, then this would not be necessary. It would be far better to control the level if discounts, keeping this to a sensible level, and allowing new releases at least a few weeks to be sold at full price. It is increasingly common though to discount at launch.

The solution then is not to increase cover prices, but to lower the discounts offered at point of sale. Of course some would say that consumers will just buy online instead. Although online book sales are increasing year on year, the majority are still bought in stores, as nothing can replace the feel and atmosphere of a book store, browsing the shelves. If customers truly want a book, then they will find the means to buy it - we cannot hold back doing what we know is right simply through fear of the competition. Someone somewhere has to make the first move, and personally I will be straight through their doors buying all their stock when they do - as like attracts like, and if I wish to be abundant, then I have to support others. That is the way of the world.

No comments: