Saturday, March 15, 2008

Cutting off their nose to spite their face

It has been such a busy week one way or another that I have not had the time to write this blog at all. It seems that everyone seems to be wanting a piece of me right now, and as a result there has not been much peace and quiet for me. Much as I enjoy my job (and I have had a very good week with some outstanding sales and a very interesting visit to trade fair on Wednesday) life was so much easier when I did not need to work. It was not so much that I did not need to anyway, for I should have returned a long time before I did, but it was a conscious choice. The choice to continue working four days a week is then as much of a choice as any other, but still it seems in many ways when I earn so little for my writing efforts, that there is no real choice at all.

I am despite this, old enough and wise enough to realise that despite my musings above, that it is a choice like any other, borne from my need to maintain a certain lifestyle, a lifestyle that involves a little more than just paying my bills and keeping a roof over my head. If I was prepared to make certain sacrifices such as not eating out, driving a lot less (difficult when you live four miles from the nearest town and there is only one bus every other hour), not enjoy holidays to Lundy, buy second hand clothes and just sit at home staring at the walls, then maybe I could afford to work three days a week instead, but this for me is not an option, as I believe, quite rightly, that I am entitled to enjoy my life, and recognise that this involves a certain degree of compromise. Unfortunately for me this has resulted in a big pile of books on the living room table, but that is par for the course and no matter how much I whitter on about this it does not change the fact that they are there.

I had hoped that the pile would start to diminish this week, as the local paper were to run a piece about me in this weeks issue, but it did not materialise. I am not too worried about this though, as I am sure it will be in this weeks one instead. After all, they did go to the trouble of sending a photographer to my home to record the evidence, and they would not have done this unless they were going to use those pictures. The reporter with whom I have been conversing rang Coran at home on Thursday after failing to get hold of me at work. He has decided that he needs to get Gardners side of the story before he goes ahead with the story and get some more background info from my website, which I suppose is fair enough. Rather than talk to Gardners direct though (I wouldn't have a clue who he needs to talk to anyway, seeing as they won't talk to me) I have referred him to Richard. If he hasn't already done so, then I expect he will give him a call next week. I buy the Advertiser every week anyway, as I need to keep in touch with what is going on in my capacity as editor of my village newsletter, so I will see it as soon as it goes in and send a copy to Richard and Paul in due course.

In the meantime my copy of the Booksellers Association Members Directory has arrived, and I have made a start by emailing at least some of their members. I tried to call some of them this morning to follow up, but most of them do not open until 10am on Saturdays. I did though get through to Wesley Owen in Aberdeen, who agreed to buy two books direct from me on a firm sale basis. It is only two copies, but it is a start, and it shows that if one branch is prepared to do this, then perhaps others would too. This is quite exciting for me, as Wesley Owen are one of the largest Christian book chains in the country, with several branches in nearby towns that I could deliver direct to perhaps, saving the cost of transportation.

I also sent a review copy out to Kindred Spirit magazine earlier in the week, to which I have subscribed now for a number of years. This is the leading new age magazine with a huge circulation, and so could do great things for me. They have only recently started to do book reviews again after a long hiatus, and a least of a quarter of those they have published have been of self published books, so I should be in with a very good chance, although it may mean waiting for a few months, since they have a bit of a backlog.

In the book world the debate re firm sale continues to rumble on. Waterstones have now decided that when their distribution warehouse opens at the end of May they will ask publishers for an extra 5 percent discount. This is not too bad actually, since they will be saving money by not having to go through wholesalers. The publishers will then end up better off, as going through a wholesaler means that they will have to sell at 55 percent discount, but Waterstones will buy direct for just 45 percent discount. I could at a push afford to supply them direct on those terms if I could buy books all the time for print cost plus 1o percent instead of the usual 25 percent.

Both Borders and Waterstones are also preparing to start selling e-books, in Borders case via their new website (must check to see if those guidelines re getting stocked by them are on the new site), and Waterstones from July in stores. The Bookseller states that Sony are preparing to launch e-readers onto the UK market sometime during 2o08, yet there were none in evidence at their trade show on Wednesday, and when I asked about them, the staff there knew nothing about it at all.

Borders I see are also changing strategy regarding how books are displayed in their stores, following the example of their American cousins, and displaying them face on rather than just showing the spines. This is a risky strategy for them to take since it will mean that less books will fit on their shelves, but I suppose if it helps to increase sales, as they seem to think it will, then it could pay dividends for both the retailer and author alike.

Julian Rivers, who was a founding director and deputy c.e.o. of the Bertram Group and now runs his own consultancy, as well as being chairman of Waterside Books and director of Meet The Author, has an interesting article re fair trade on his blog site, linked to The Bookseller, where he bemoans the abolition of the net book price agreement and what this has meant to libraries. I find this interesting at a time when I too have been writing about fair trade practises, albeit for a different purpose. It shows me though that I am not the only one to have such thoughts on my mind.

Graeme Neil reports that for the first time last year, the volume of books bought at a discount was greater than the volume bought at full price. The practise of discounting has steadily increased since 2004, when it represented 44 percent of book purchases. In 2007 the volume of discounted titles reached 51 percent of the market.

According to the survey, conducted by BML, consumers aged 12-79 years bought 6 percent more books in 2007 than the previous year, up from 322 million to 342 million. The value also increased but at a lower rate, up 4 percent to £2.454 billion. This is then both good and bad news.

The growth in consumer book purchases between 2006 and 2007 seems to have been driven mainly by supermarkets and the Internet, with both volume and value of sales in both sectors doubling since 2004. Internet sales topped £400 million last year, accounting for 17 percent of consumer spending, up from just 9 percent in 2004.

A third of book purchases still go through chain stores such as the aforementioned Borders and Waterstones, but while volume through these stores has grown year-on-year by 1%, the actual value fell by 1%. The chains however still have far greater buying power than the supermarkets and the Internet combined.

Sales of adult books grew 13 percent in volume in the years 2004-2007, with sales of children's books increasing by 18 percent in volume and 29 percent in value over the same period (perhaps I will become a children's writer then). The lower growth in value compared with volume reflects the decrease in average selling price paid by consumers, and shows to me just how much this agressive attitude impacts on the industry. It seems to me that they are cutting off their noses to spite their face in an effort to be what they think is competitive. During that same four year period, the survey found that average book prices paid for adult books fell by 5 percent with a 3 percent decrease in 2007 alone. One cannot help but wonder where this will all end.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Will supply solutions benefit the self publisher?

There seems to be much going on in the book world this week, and it is only Monday - loads of news pages to get through and comment on, and I hardly know where to begin. The stories that interest me the most though concern as always our two largest book chains, Waterstones and Borders.

Just as Waterstones are preparing to open their centralised distribution unit in June, Borders are closing theirs in Cornwall, in an effort they say, partly designed to boost the company's green credentials by cutting down on the amount of miles that the books they stock have to be trucked around the country. Chief executive Philip Downer stated on Friday that he believes the business will be better served by publishers and wholesalers delivering direct to stores.
Amen to that, as it may finally end the ridiculous situation I spoke of last week, where rather than building up sales slowly over several months and then being taken on as core stock, it works the other way around. You cannot of course though get the sales when stores are not prepared to stock you in the first place, or in my case it seems, even talk to you as a fellow human being. This may then mean that self publishers such as myself finally begin to have a voice and an opportunity to get stocked in more than their local store.

In the meantime, Waterstones are preparing to open their own centralised distribution centre in Burton upon Trent in June, which I must admit I had been concerned about, as this may have effectively shut the door to any books that were not already core stock, including my own. MD Gerry Johnson though has taken steps to reassure small presses, which I guess would include people such as myself, that those who deal with Waterstones branches on a store by store basis will still be able to do this.
He stated at the Publishers Guild annual conference in Brighton that the company would not keep the expertise in Waterstones if they did not allow staff at store level to make buying decisions. He went on to say that the company should aim to have a 50/50 balance between core stock and stock driven at local level. He added that this was essential if the company is to survive. Wise words indeed, that for me as least strike a sensible balance between the needs of big business and the smaller publishers, both commercial and self publishers.

Perhaps more interestingly, Johnson also said that he hopes to start collecting books directly from printers, cutting out the wholesalers and book miles at the same time. I wonder what this will mean then for print on demand titles such as mine printed by Lightning Source and whether they will be able to come to a suitable arrangement re this that suits both parties. This will be a very interesting one to watch I feel, as it could drastically change the way that print on demand books are dealt with by our largest and most influential book chain - hopefully in a way that will benefit their authors as well as the book stores.

The Bookseller also reports though a hostile reaction towards the idea of firm sale, with that old chestnut still being trotted out - it is unfair that the book sellers should have to take all the risk. This would be laughable were it not so serious, for all the reasons that I have stated so many times on this blog. The discussion, the book sellers argue, is really not about moves towards firm sale, but how they can cut down on returns to begin with. They just don't get it though - if you want to cut down on returns don't order so many books in the first place - it really is that simple.
They keep insisting also that firm sale should mean higher discount and more favourable terms to compensate for this - yet this will cause irreparable damage to the small publishers that firm sale would help the most, as many of them are struggling to accommodate the demands of the industry as it is. Book sellers traditionally buy at discount of around 40 percent, but it does not stop there, as the wholesaler also wants their cut. By the time you add this on top, you are looking in reality at publishers having to offer a minimum of 55 percent discount just to get through the door.

I am in theory all in favour of higher discount to compensate for firm sale, but this should be tempered with a decrease in discount for sale and return to help the publishers who take the biggest risk and protect their interests. At the moment terms are usually 25 percent discount for firm sale and 40 percent sale or return. It would in my opinion make much more sense if this were reversed. It would certainly be a lot fairer as well - to all concerned and give book sellers one hell of an incentive to embrace this nuch needed change.

The other day I received a regular newsletter from Jerry Simmons, co-founder of the Nothing Binding Project, in which he listed some interesting statistics re internet sales. Research suggests that more books are sold on the Internet than any other product, and the number is increasing year by year.

Nielsen Online surveyed 26,312 people in 48 countries and found that 41% of Internet users had bought books online. This compares with two years ago when just 34% of Internet users had done so. Interesting, much of this increase seems to be in the emerging markets of countries such as South Korea and India, with British consumers in 10th place. The survey found that more than eight out of ten Internet users had purchased something in the last three months, a 40 percent increase on two years ago, to about 875 million shoppers.

The league table for Internet book buyers is as follows:

1. South Korea - 58%
2. Germany - 55%
3. Austria - 54%
4. Vietnam - 54%
5. Brazil - 51%
6. Egypt - 49%
7. China - 48%
8. India - 46%
9. Taiwan - 45%
10. UK - 45%
Percentage of Internet users buying books online. Source: Nielsen

As can be seen, the largest percentage of people buying books in any country was South Korea at 58%. Nielsen estimate that this equated to some 18 milion people. In the US, 57.5 million customers were estimated to have bought books, equating to just 38 percent of Internet users. In the UK the number is 14.5 million people, or 45% of those online. I find this particuarly interesting given that American authors seem to promote their books so much more online that we do in this country. Could this be because the vastness of that country makes travel more expensive and difficult I wonder, with security issues also to be considered, or this just a cultural thing?
When my Conversations with POD blog site was featured in the January edition of Writers News, I had just one response, and I cannot be sure that this came via the magazine, as the author in question is also a member of the Talkback forum that I post on. Despite my best efforts, the majority of the books featured on that site are by American rather than British authors, something that I hoped would be much more the other way around. Not that I have anything against American authors you understand, but the idea of the blog was to help promote home grown talent. So, British print on demand authors, where are you?