Thursday, July 19, 2018

The price of books.

After my holiday is almost over Book buying moment in Waterstones Inverness I had a loyalty voucher to spend, so on my first day off (because half a week back at work deserves a reward, doesn't it?) I went to my local Waterstones to spend it.

I was looking for the reissued Diana Cooper autobiographies from Vintage, but they weren't on the shelf, which is fine because there's very little chance I would have read them anytime soon anyway. I did find Hope Mirrilees 'Lud-in-the-Mist' which I vaguely remember reading about ages ago, and Philip Pillman's 'Grimm Tales' which I'd half wanted for ages - so I went away happy with change from £10 and a stamp on my new loyalty card.

Then I read this Article in The Guardian about booming book sales compared to falling payments for authors and got thoroughly annoyed. Booming sales in this case means a 5% increase in sales, and an eventual admmision that profits appear to be static.

It's not particularly encouraging that the average income for a 'full time' author is £11000 a year (I assume this is income earn the predominantly from book sales/royalties), and there was an illuminating, if not particularly edifying, debate about it on twitter around a month ago after a similar article.

Both articles annoyed me because neither show much understanding of the costs involved between an author parting with a manuscript and someone buying a book. That's part of a much bigger problem that covers clothes and food too - we're used to things being cheap, assume we're being ripped off somehow as a default position, and bitterly resist price rises - a situation not helped by stagnant wages at the lower end of the pay scale.

Books in this country are cheap. They haven't kept place with inflation, production values (the quality of cover design especially) are high and there's a whole lot of people involved in turning a manuscript into a book, a whole lot more involved in getting that book from a warehouse to a readers hand - and all of them deserve to be paid properly for their work.

Articles like this which pitch authors against their publishers seem utterly wrongheaded to me, much more useful to question what's happened to margin that sales are up and profits are not, and really consider what that means long term.

I don't want Amazon to be my only choice to buy books from; as a customer I get frustrated by the wait for deliveries (sometimes it's fine, sometimes it's not), and for the books I want they're not particularly cheap. To keep prices mostly low suppliers and staff are squeezed hard, and the environmental impact of next day delivery isn't encouraging. So I rarely use them.

I do like Waterstones with its friendly, knowledge, staff who don't appear to actively dislike their jobs. I like the move away from deep discounting and 3for2 in favour of a loyalty scheme that encourages me to take a chance on books I might not otherwise look at (all those hard earned £10 vouchers happily spent on obscure titles) and I love to browse. I like a good independent bookshop even more, I just don't live within walking distance of one.

I like a bargain as much as the next person, but we really do need to understand when something is a bargain and understand the real cost of cheap goods - and what that means for choice and diversity.


  1. Well, as someone who used to work in publishing, I agree absolutely with what you write here. What I find frustrating is that the retailer gets a larger slice of the profits than the author - and unless things have changed, which I hope they have, the retailer can return books to publishers if they don't sell and be reimbursed for the full price, the burden of the risk thus being borne by the publisher, not the retailer. (And if this has changed, it is good and I should like to know it.)

    Cheaper books make it easier to justify closing libraries.

    It's true not just for books and clothes, but also for food and music and other reproducable art forms. I think it's interesting that the fall in price for these consumables has come at a time of ever-increasing housing costs so I doubt that many people 'feel' better off than in the 1980s.

    Finally, and then I will shut up, here in Belgium books are noticeably more expensive - a combination I think of books not being exempt from the equivalent of VAT, a smaller potential market (there aren't so many Dutch speakers as English speakers in the world), and a lack of Amazon. I wonder whether it's easier or harder for writers here to make a living? And now I think about it, a large proportion of titles here are translated, especially from English.

    1. The returns policy seems crazy, but with a rising minimum wage I can see why booksellers need a larger slice of the pie - along with everybody else who has a salaried job to do along the process of turning a manuscript into a book. I also see a lot of pressure in the uk to keep things cheap because house prices are high and wages are not particularly, (the average wage is somewhere around £27000 I think, I earn rather less). Retailers are stuck in a price war that's hurting everyone from suppliers, to staff, and customers who are going to have a hell of a shock when prices go up.

      I'd be happy enough to see book prices hiked by about a £1 a paperback, it wouldn't significantly change my book buying habits, and it might help curb impulse biscuit buys (got to make the saving somewhere), but we really do need to better understand the costs involved.

      The thing that really bothers me about Amazon is that on the whole we don't question how they manage to sell so cheaply, and seem collectively determined to turn a blind eye to their employment practices, or the environmental cost of next day deliveries. Again, keep wondering how sustainable it is.

  2. This is a really difficult question, tackled head on. I try to only use Amazon when I have tried to find a book everywhere else. I order books through bookshops, especially if I can find an independent shop when I am going to be in an area for a week. I do go to Waterstones a lot (so many loyalty cards....) but I do find that they tend towards having very similar stock. I love the chase of secondhand bookshops for what they may yield, but access is often a problem and obviously they do not directly benefit the author. However, I do find that if I find one book in a series I may well pay full price for the next one, so some advantage to the author and publisher. Sadly, I have largely given up on public libraries as they are closing down fast in our area and I am not within easy distance of one. I spent so much on library fines! So, no easy answers. I do try and review as many books as possible, so persuade people to read more and therefore increase book sales.

    1. I think all any of us can do is think about how we spend our money and spread it around as best we can to maintain the choices we want. But then we're probably not the people who's habits or minds need changing on this issue, and although my means are limited I can afford my chosen luxury of books without any real problem. I suppose the other great evil that Amazon has unleashed is the ebook (or at least they're market leaders) and with it the assumption that so much content should be free - which however you look at it devalues what authors do.