Opinion: It's all in the sauce

Trevor Dolby
Opinion - Publishing Monday, 23rd February 2009

If we're going to get through the recession, we need to tackle some fundamental trade issues, Trevor Dolby writes With two months of 2009 nearly gone, we are all looking anxiously at figures, beavering away on F1 reports and, in non-fiction anyway, racking our brains and scouring submissions for that budgeted unacquired turnover. It's easy to get caught up in the hunt for a sales stretch that solves a problem on paper at least - and even easier to get into the marketing budget-slashing game. Of course, every imprint has to take responsibility for its piece of the action but, at the BookScan presentation of 2008 figures last week, it was obvious that there's only so much we can do, if we are to avoid a perfect storm, without tackling the over-arching and pressing industry-wide issues.

Aside from the prevailing economic conditions, a raft of issues needs solving promptly if we are to move forward as one: returns, discounts, retail spend, advance write-offs, the diminishing number of retail outlets, ebooks and who gets what from them, and how business will develop with Amazon and other online retailers. Add to this the intrinsic way readers are changing how they read, and there's a good deal to think about for everyone.
Of all these, the most pressing is returns. It's madness that a book with a million copies in print over Christmas will have anything up to 200,000 returned between January and March. It's mad for the publisher, who cannot budget effectively, and madness for the retailer, who has to return the stock. It's an archaic way of doing business. It should have been sorted when the net book agreement went in September 1995. How about we abolish sale or return? Retailers will buy their stock and then own it. But that means they might not take half publishers titles, and of those they do take, the sub will be halved. We need to have some confidence and go for it. We publish good books that people want to read, and don t forget the route to the reader is changing. Things are beginning to happen. Look at Bob Miller's HarperStudio in the States.
My take on the BookScan figures for 2008 is that volume is up, but turnover is down, a consequence of vicious discounting. The principle of continuously discounting is in itself nuts, but to put the tin lid on it look at the mad way discounts are employed: discount the most popular must-have books and price up the middle range might-buy-if- they-were-a-little-cheaper books. Harry Potter for a fiver on the day of publication anyone? Dear Fatty for six quid a week into January?
I know it's complicated and nuanced, but let's start at the beginning: why discount to death books that people want? Isn t it common sense and good business practice to hold the price of things that people are prepared to pay for? Of course the retailers scream market share, footfall . But where is this market share being pinched from? I know the two major high street retailers (I ll get into the supermarket issue some other time) are anxious in the present climate, but think of the long-term, guys. Heavens to Betsy, just think of the profit. I m told auto-asphyxiation is a turn-on for some, but sucking the oxygen out of the whole industry?
A few years back the tabloids revealed that publishers paid booksellers to display their books in prominent positions in store. There was uproar. I m not sure where, but there was uproar, because the newspapers who revealed it said there was uproar. Strangely, they didn t want to point out this practice is common across retailing. It's not really a big idea that the more books you have out there the more they will catch the eye and the more, hopefully, will be sold. But the expense to return is becoming so high that the pips are squeaking, and I wonder why retailers don t see that they are jamming a screwdriver into the cash machine.
One of the very few good things about the recession is that publishers have sobered up and stopped paying ridiculous advances. Well, for the most part. I know it's tough for some agents and it's a shock to some authors. In the past there was a perception that the balance of collaboration changed in the life of a book. At the pitch the publisher was often perceived to be working for agent and author; during the writing the author was perhaps perceived to be working for the publisher; and when the book was delivered the roles reverted. Agents would beat on publishers if their author wasn t selling enough copies, as if the publisher, having purchased the book, had suddenly forgotten it had actually paid hard cash and needed to earn its money back. Thankfully, a new collaboration seems to have set in, which can only be good for everyone.
I keep saying I m optimistic about the future.
For those working on the actual books, it's your editorial judgement and publishing vigour that can make a huge bestseller. For those that run imprints, it's your ability to balance business with books. But as an industry we can only be successful if we swiftly find solutions to the over-arching issues. After all, a good pizza is all in the sauce.

Trevor Dolby is Publisher of Preface.