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Old 5th Mar 2004, 9:42   #1
Wavid
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Default Book prices

Relatively interesting couple of articles in today's Guardian on that hot topic of book prices. Cheaper books, in the short term, if that is what all this means, is surely a good thing for us bibliophiles. But what of the long term future of 'serious' writing?
Quote:
Writers fight to keep cover prices

Authors join battle against supermarket strategies

John Ezard, arts correspondent
Thursday March 4, 2004


A group of nearly 40 authors - including Beryl Bainbridge, JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and Vikram Seth - is going into battle against moves within publishing to abolish the cover price printed inside the dust jacket of a book, known as the recommended retail price (RRP).
This deceptively small stroke of a publisher's pen could usher in an age where "supermarket disciplines" are imposed on the book industry, according to the president of the Society of Authors, Antony Beevor, author of the bestseller Stalingrad.
The writers' fear is that with no cover price authors such as John Grisham would fly off the shelves, so he would be piled high, but literary works take time to sell and earn less per bookshelf inch.
The Whitbread prize-winning children's author Mr Pullman, writing in the Guardian today to mark World Book Day, argues that abandoning the RRP will be a disaster for middle of-the-range authors, such as writers of successful but not bestselling first books or detective stories.
"Both of these writers are necessary to the rich and varied literary life we are lucky enough to enjoy now. Neither of them will survive under the proposed regime. Their books, though very different, are exactly the sort that will have to be priced out of reach of the general reader so that the latest celebrity ghostwritten bestseller can dominate the market place."
Leading authors, most of them prize winners, who have joined the Society of Authors' campaign include Monica Ali, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Linda Grant, Mark Haddon and Michael Holroyd.
It is understood that one big publisher is already trying to steal a march on its rivals by tempting its bestselling writers to accept new forms of payment. These are called net receipt deals or dealer pricing. Publishers would charge booksellers a net price for their books which would remain secret to the public.
Authors would lose the royalty system, now calculated on the RRPs of their books, and would expect to be poorer.
A recent Society of Authors' survey found that three-quarters of published writers are living on incomes of less than £20,000 a year from their work.
Checks by the magazine Bookseller emphasise how divided the trade is. Those who want the RRP abolished include Borders bookshops, Blackwell's, and the executive director of WH Smith, Trevor Goul-Wheeler (speaking in a personal capacity).
He told the magazine: "Anyone who bought the Guinness Book of World Records at list price needs their head examined. Recommended retail prices have become meaningless."
A committee of publishers and booksellers is discussing a plan under which bookshops would take 250 "important" titles a year. These hoped-for fast-sellers would receive the lion's share of promotions, squeezing out other books.
Ms Grant said yesterday: "Publishers will have to negotiate with each bookseller on the price of each work and the supermarkets will discount so deeply that the bookshops, to compete, will have to drive down prices even further.
"The effect is to turn books into commodities with prices equivalent to bags of crisps, and all but the huge names won't be able to make a living."
One of the leading figures in British publishing last night added her voice to those calling for the reinstatement of the Net Book Agreement (NBA).
Gail Rebuck, the chief executive of Random House, said: "If someone asked, 'Would you bring it back?' I'd answer, 'Yes, I would bring it back'."
She was speaking at a Guardian Review event to mark World Book Day.
Philip Pullmen then wades in with his views.
Quote:
Books are not eggs

Our rich and varied literary life is under threat from proposals for a new pricing structure on what we read

Philip Pullman
Thursday March 4, 2004



Every week we go to the supermarket and buy a dozen eggs. We expect them to taste and look pretty well the same as last week's lot. And we know that neither the hen who laid them, nor the farmer who collected them, had anything to do with deciding what price we should pay at the checkout, because that's the job of the retailer; and we know that the price will have been worked out by balancing such things as the deal the farmer had to accept, the price the customer is likely to put up with, the wages of the shelf-stackers, and so on. Buying eggs is a transaction that takes place so often that we can tell at once if the price this week is twice what it was last week, or how much less the supermarket charges than the corner shop.
But books work differently - though a suggestion being floated by some retailers and publishers would erase the difference, and make things very much more difficult for authors, and very much worse, in the long run, for the reading public.
The idea is that instead of being published with a suggested price, books should be published like eggs, as it were, so that the retailer alone would decide what to charge. But books are not like eggs. Every time we buy eggs, we are looking for the same thing we had last time; but every time we buy a book, we're looking for something different. So when it comes to looking at the cost, we have nothing to go by, at the moment, except the recommended retail price. A new literary biography, in hardback, will have a suggested price of £25 or so; a best-selling paperback will have an RRP of £7.99 or thereabouts. If the bookshop wants to discount them, we can easily tell the value of the discount by comparing it with the publisher's suggested price.
But if there were no RRP, how could we tell? We wouldn't even know if the bookseller was charging more, rather than less. We don't buy the same book 50 times a year; there is nothing to compare it with except itself. That would be an inconvenience. What follows from it would be a disaster.
At the moment, an author's income depends on royalties, which are calculated as a percentage of the recommended retail price - say 8% on average. The royalty on a book with an RRP of £15 would be roughly £1.20, whether or not the bookseller decides to sell it for three pounds less. This system has worked reasonably well for many years, though not many writers make much money; a recent survey by the Society of Authors found that three-quarters of the members made less than £20,000 a year. The royalty system has a sort of clarity and fairness about it.
But if there wasn't an RRP anymore, royalties would have to be calculated on some other basis, and the most likely one is a percentage of net receipts, or the money that the publisher actually gets from the bookseller. In order to produce a roughly equivalent income, authors will have to receive something like 25% - and they are not in the least likely to get it.
Those who are lucky enough to feature regularly in the best-seller lists won't suffer too much: their agents will be able to demand a large advance. It's those in the middle of the range who are likely to do worst, and this is where the real damage will be done.
Consider two novelists. One is young, brilliant, original, but her talent is wild and erratic. A few years ago a publisher would have found it worth taking on her first book, confident that with the help of editing, experience, and exposure in the shops, her obvious gifts will find and develop an audience. The other author is in his 60s, and has published a stream of detective stories for many years without ever reaching the best-seller lists. His work is popular with readers: he knows that because of the public lending right figures, which show borrowing from libraries. But he can't command large advances, although he does make a steady, if modest, living.
Both of these writers are necessary to the rich and varied literary life we are lucky enough to enjoy now. Neither of them will survive under the proposed regime. Their books are exactly the sort that will have to be priced out of reach of the general reader so that the latest celebrity, ghost-written best-seller can dominate the marketplace.
As a result, each of these two authors will find it harder and harder to get published at all; if they are, the return for their labour will be minuscule; and both apprenticeship at one end of a career, and a decent enjoyment of a lifetime's work at the other, will be wiped out.
And it isn't even as if the booksellers set sensible prices anyway. Of all the books in the world that was guaranteed to sell a million copies at the full recommended retail price, and make a fortune for everyone involved, the latest Harry Potter was that book. And what did the big booksellers do? They all discounted it to the point where it wouldn't surprise me to learn that many of them actually lost money on it.
Those who are arguing for the abolition of the RRP do so because they expect to benefit from it. No doubt they will, in the short term. But they're forgetting the nature of the thing they sell. A hen is in business as soon as she lays her first egg; authorship is a much more complicated, precarious and long-term affair. The book trade needs to nurture those who produce the books, because without us, the whole edifice would collapse.
· Philip Pullman is an author and former chairman of the Society of Authors.
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Old 5th Mar 2004, 14:22   #2
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What do you mean by serious writing? We already have problems with the short print runs of academic books - and the associated high prices - things are going out of print very quickly these days.

There is some improvement in sight though as some publishers are keepin electronic versions of books that can be supplied on a 'print on demand' basis.

As to the RRP price disappearing - I am inclined to agree with Pullman - for the book buyer there is no other way of comparing prices (for instance I but a lot of American imports, and even with postage they are ofen cheaper than similar books here - how could I know that without something to compare to). As we know RRP's don't stop booksellers discounting books

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Old 5th Mar 2004, 14:34   #3
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Yes the benefit of the RRP is that it enables shops to discount, but none of them has the cheek to charge more. If there was no RRP then people in small towns not well-served by bookshops could be short-changed by monopolising retailers. And if there was no RRP then every single book would need to have a nasty gluey price sticker on it. Bah!
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Old 5th Mar 2004, 14:36   #4
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I think it is an undoubtably bad idea, which means it'll almost certainly happen.

I must be too young to remember the net book agreement - anyone care to fill me in?
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Old 5th Mar 2004, 14:44   #5
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Too young! *cough* Surely not, Wavid! It was all the rage, i.e. legally binding, until less than 10 years ago. You could probably work out exactly when by checking your old books and seeing when they stopped putting the price as "£6.99 net" and started putting it as "£6.99 RRP". Basically it was an agreement between publishers and retailers to standardise the prices of books. The pro- argument was that without the NBA, booksellers would discount all the popular fiction and literary stuff would be left to languish or even increase in price. That hasn't really happened. The anti- argument was that it was a damn fine line between 'standardising prices' and a cartel.

Dillons, as it then was, made tentative moves to breach it by offering 3-for-2 offers at certain times of the year and offering a few pounds off the Booker shortlist etc. It collapsed gradually and then suddenly.

Of course booksellers have discounts and multiple buy offers on all year round now which is good for the reader but less good for the smaller publishers who can't offer the discounts the big chains demand.
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Old 5th Mar 2004, 18:25   #6
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On the other hand, you could argue that freeing up the market would have exactly the opposite effect. Shops could increase demand for less popular authors by lowering the prices. If they're selling more books the authors will end up making the same amount of money. As they gain more of a following, the price could be raised, as the risk of them not selling goes down. Popular bestsellers could be sold at top whack, because the demand would be high enough that the high prices wouldn't matter.

I know this approach does have certain moral problems. For example kids from less wealthy families still expecting them to buy the most popular books e.g. HP, but this is no different to anything else in our society. They also want the latest popular toys and the latest cool trainers. Sometimes they have to live with less popular substitutes.
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Old 6th Mar 2004, 9:33   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bakunin_the_cat
On the other hand, you could argue that freeing up the market would have exactly the opposite effect. Shops could increase demand for less popular authors by lowering the prices..
But as Pullman suggests, the opposite is more likely to happen. Nixing the RRP will pull the rug from the royalty system and force publishers to be more conservative in their choice of writers.
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Old 7th Mar 2004, 20:32   #8
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Yes - publishing will just become a pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap operation. Much like the music business these days, and most television too, *sigh*.
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