Monday, September 14, 2009

The Lost Symbol - a symbol of a lost industry

With the release of Dan Brown's long awaited novel "The Lost Symbol" tomorrow, book stores and supermarkets are no doubt expecting a surge of interest, not to mention the ringing of tills. This is excellent news for Brown and his agent, and good news for his fans, but is it such good news for the stores? When what has been touted to become the decade's best selling novel is sold at half price (£9.49 instead of the cover price of £18.99), perhaps not. When one thinks of the beleaguered book sellers placing these books into carrier bags and smiling as they take the money, none of which will add to their company's profits, then it all looks rather farcical. A bit like the Curry's superstore which opened in Croydon at the weekend with queues a quarter of a mile long so that customers could buy half price televisions that actually cost the company money rather than earning them any.

This book is no different. Make no mistake - Brown, his publisher and his agent will be about the only ones to profit from this farce. Even with a discount that must be a minimum of 60 percent. Anyone with the slightest understanding of business (not to mention a few brain cells - one would do) can surely see that it is impossible for the book sellers to continue in this mode. Even with that high discount (which will eat heavily into the publisher's own profits, even though there are unlikely to be high returns), what small amount of money the stores do make will be swallowed up promotional costs and other overheads. The situation is such that many small independents who do not have the buying power of the chains, will find it cheaper to buy their own copies from the likes of Asda and Amazon than from their own wholesalers! How can this make sense?

Thus it is that several million pounds that could have been used to help a flagging industry will be literally poured down the drain, and all this at a time when the industry is struggling for survival. It defies all logic known to man (and certainly this woman). What a way to run a business! If people want to buy this book, then why not make them pay full price? When you ask that vital question though, the only response is that the retailers have to remain competitive. Well, how can they remain competitive when they lose money? I fail to see the point.

Selling books at these knock down prices devalues the entire industry, not to mention the worth of authors in the eyes of both readers and publishers, both of whom are struggling to make ends meet (Brown being very much the exception). This comes at a time when authors advances are being squeezed more and more, with some reporting decreases of up to 80 percent and wondering why they bother at all. Brown himself, as with most best selling authors, will make most of his money not from the book itself from the sale or rights - merchandising, film rights and so on, and of course foreign rights for other languages and territories.

For all the talk about diversity and about how the face of publishing is changing, the reality is that very little is - it remains just talk. Walk into the average supermarket and you see rows of celebrity biographies and best selling fiction paperbacks, with if you are lucky, a few heavily discounted gardening and DIY manuals. This is not diversity, but to be quite honest, boring, and I cannot understand how the supermarkets have become the leading book retailers with such a predictable stable. The chains may promote these same types of books the heaviest, but at least they make the effort to stock other types of book, and can order them in if requested. The supermarkets do not offer this level of service, and do not pretend to.

Some may argue that offering books at discount encourages more people to read, and in a way they do have a point, but at what price? In the end if simply devalues the industry and further erodes what is left. After all, logic dictates that if Dan Brown can be sold at half price, so can everything else.

I remember when I first read the Conversations with God series of books back in the mid 90's, in one of them (it may have been book 2, but I can't remember exactly), God speaking through author Neale Donald Walsch suggested that goods should have 2 sets of figures on them - the cost of buying the product and the price that it is actually sold for -perhaps it is time to introduce this system and ask the consumers, would you be prepared to work for so little?

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