We need to talk about hardback fiction.
Illustration to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, by artist John Lawrence 2008. Image: The Illustration Cupboard.
Some people like nothing better than to collect shelves of huge hardbacks from their favourite authors. Personally, I really dislike them. The dust covers annoy the hell out of me (I usually cast them aside angrily after a few chapters) and I’m accomplished at falling asleep and dropping
a book on my face. Pillars of the Earth gave me a nosebleed once, and left me with a black eye. Also, I do like to fling the book I’m reading into my bag, carry it around with me and cuddle it a bit when I’m doing other stuff, or shove it in my laptop bag in the hope of a few spare moments in a working day. A huge, lumpy, flappy hardback book would never be my first choice. I do own a few, either where I had no other option (I’ve quite a few hardbacks from The Ash Tree Press of obscure texts that no other publisher would touch, but probably ought to), and I have one or two hardbacks of books that are really important to me. But other than that, I’m a paperback girl. With few exceptions, I’d rather wait a year for a paperback than risk a black eye.
Selling hardback books too is fraught with difficulties. When a new book from an established writer
comes out, often you’ll find it discounted heavily as part of launch marketing high street chains, supermarkets and online. Let’s take JK Rowling’s script of The Cursed Child: its cover price is £20. On its release, it was selling at 50% discount almost everywhere. This is entirely typical of a popular hardback: the latest Robert Harris or Wilbur Smith for example can typically be bought for half price or less online as part of its first marketing placement plan. We can’t even buy in to our stock a copy of The Cursed Child, or the latest Robert Harris et al for the price they are being sold to the public elsewhere. Unless we
consider selling them at a loss, generally we don’t really think to stock these books. We do have a few wonderful and ferociously loyal customers who insist on buying these books from us, even if they have to pay a few pounds more, but these people are the exception. We might keep one token copy in stock – but I certainly wouldn’t order 20 or 30 to do a window display for them. This doesn’t really bother us too much, as we do other things – we go and look for the really beautiful or interesting books from smaller publishers that you’d be hard-pushed to find on display elsewhere; we can order in even the most obscure books within a day or so – and mostly they arrive the next day; and we do a very good line in recommendations because we know almost all of our customers very well and we can spend time chatting to them.
When I say it doesn’t bother us, what I mean is that it doesn’t normally
bother us. But the forthcoming first volume of The Book of Dust bothers us greatly. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of the most important pieces of writing of our times, and the idea that Pullman’s next books will be something we have to consider carefully before stocking, feels like a fairly firm slap to an independent bookshop that has held its place for 50 years. Already this book is available to pre-order at half price. Again, to be part of the buzz, we would (as it looks at the moment) have to sell this book at a loss or for no profit at all, or we could consider not stocking it. But how can we possibly not have The Book of Dust in our stock and prominently on display in the shop? What kind of bookshop would not stock The Book of Dust?!
I’m extremely curious to understand why publishers feel that hardback fiction needs to be sold at such discounts. There is no question that people are going to buy The Book of Dust, just as people were always going to buy The Cursed Child. So why discount it? Is the implication that a beautiful and important hardback book wouldn’t sell at £20? If you think it wouldn’t sell at £20, then you have got the price point wrong. Why not just price it at £9.99 in the first place? This seems to have become little more than a difficult to break habit in the publishing industry – and it is so much part of a book’s promotion now that people have come to expect books from prominent writers to be always sold at a big discount.
I’ve been wracking my brains to think of another area of retail in which new stock is sold at half price. You wouldn’t go into a high street clothes shop, a shoe shop, or a homeware store and expect the new seasons designs and colours to be on sale at half their stated retail price. The implication of a significant discount is that the goods have less value than their printed price. When many of our most cherished authors are earning less than £12,000 (often much
less) from writing alone, what message are we sending out about the value of authors and illustrators in our society if we offer their books at far less than the printed price? My own opinion is that I don’t think you could over-state the value that writers like Philip Pullman and JK Rowling add to our nation, so why are we de-valuing them by discounting their work so heavily at the time when it is most desired – at the point of its first publication? This generally happens to the books of our best-selling authors, so are we also telling all writers and illustrators that the thing to aspire to is to have your book discounted to half price when it is released? When our authors already get such a small percentage of profit from sales, why are we pushing them right down to the level of an end of season sale, or out of date food, before they’ve even started? Above everything I find this all deeply and unforgivably insulting to authors. We need our writers and illustrators more than ever – and we should be respecting and valuing them far more than to treat their work like this.
We talk to authors and illustrators all the time – and we get phenomenal, constant and fierce support from them. Many will go out of their way to come and see an indie bookshop, do signings, support us on social media and in many other ways – we’ve never found authors and illustrators to be anything other than very protective of indie bookshops. This relationship is two-way: we work hard to contact authors whose work we love, we talk to them, review their books, display their books, talk about their books to schools and book-groups (and any established bookseller or author will tell you that it is word-of–mouth that keeps a book in print and selling in the long term – not trend-driven publicity campaigns), we get their books onto school reading lists, and generally do all we can to spread the word. The relationship between a small bookshop and its favourite authors is a strong and loving one, so it can make things very awkward when we find ourselves in a position when it makes no sense for us to stock their latest book.
Anyone would expect the next book by Philip Pullman to be a best-seller; but what of those books that are more of a surprise hit? Let’s look at The Girl on The Train. A wonderful book; and when it first came out (in hardback
priced at a more sensible £12.99) it sold very well – so well in fact that at several points neither we, nor any other bookseller, could get hold of enough copies to sate demand. We had a decent offer on it from our suppliers so we were able to match other high-street shops easily and offer the book with a few pounds off. No one foresaw just how well it would sell, clearly, or more books would have been printed at the first press – and it would probably have had space and publicity bought in high-street chains when it was first published. It is always a delight to see a runaway success for (at the time)
a less well-known author. Not only did she sell the film rights, but her work triggered an entire trend of books with the word ‘Girl’ in the title. Her second book came out recently – Into The Water. Now you’d have thought that the publishers would want to make the most of having an author who has delighted readers and booksellers all over the country – but no. We now have a hardback priced at £20 (customers: ‘What?!’) and, yes you’ve guessed it, discounted to £9.99 online and in high street chains. Why?! It seems that the moment you are successful as an author you are doomed to be discounted – and priced away from the independent booksellers you’ve worked so hard to support.
There is another aspect to hardback books which is slightly puzzling: with the exception of those few best-selling authors or word-of-mouth successes, hardback books really don’t sell. It is generally the hardbacks that
get sent back to the suppliers at the end of the month. In particular hard-backed children’s picture flats are completely baffling for a bookseller. Even the latest book from Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson doesn’t sell particularly well in hardback – in paperback they sell constantly! There are exceptions to this – many of the gorgeously beautiful illustrated books arriving from small publishers like Graffeg and Tiny Owl are in hardback and they do sell. But that is another blog! Older children’s fiction and YA writing seems to go into hardback randomly – some arrive first in hardback, and some are published straight into paperback – and the popularity of the author seems to have little to do with it. I did ask the Director of a publishing company how they chose the children’s fiction that was going to be published first in hardback; the answer was ‘Any book we think we can get away with.’
Competing with high street chains and online retailers is simply something that comes with the territory of being a small business of almost any sort. We are quite used to it and we are absolutely prepared to accept that we need to do things differently and offer customers something that they can’t get from online purchasing, or from a chain – and we enjoy ourselves immensely in the process! Normally, we don’t consider heavily discounted hardbacks from best-selling authors to be a problem, it is just part of being a business. However, The Book of Dust is different; it is from one of the most important and challenging authors of both this century and the last, whose work has added gold to our cultural canon. It is also very long-awaited. In the case of this book I can’t and I won’t shrug it off and say: ‘Ah well, we’ll stock something else’. I’d be an appalling bookseller if I didn’t find the courage to say that yes, in this case, this is something we should be talking about.