Friday, 4 May 2007

Show me the money

Two items in the book trade news today, both of which mystify me. Firstly, Waterstone's will be selling the final Harry Potter (What? You didn't know it was coming out?) at half price because they're driven to be 'price competitive'. Customers will also get a free copy of Wizardology: A Guide to Wizards of the World. Whoopee - get in the queue right now! Simon Fox, their chief executive, says they won't lose money but that 'At half price it's pretty difficult to make money.' Well, duh.

I'm sure you're all aware of the madness going on in the book world which over the past few years has seen the rise of discounting and of the clout of supermarkets, along with a corresponding decline in the independent bookshop sector. What has happened is that customers (and I include myself) have been trained to view books as products on which we want a good deal just like the 3 for 2 or Bogof deal at the chemist or supermarket. The question always is, can we treat a book like a can of beans or a tube of toothpaste? Do we now view books sold at full price as a bad deal? There is a debate going on yet again in the book trade about removing RRPs from books entirely and letting prices find their own level. The whole question of perceived value is an interesting one. We don't want to shell out £7.99 for a paperback but don't mind the same price for a main course on a lunch menu? Remember, as Milton said: 'A good book is the lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.' Isn't that of more worth than a lasagne and side salad?

With the Harry Potter scenario, one wonders if any copies will be sold at all at the RRP. With the gigantic economies of scale involved, neither Bloomsbury nor J.K. herself will suffer. But what about struggling authors who are already facing the prospect of declining royalties which may well be based in the future not on the price printed on the book but on the actual selling price. God knows, a paperback that generates a royalty of 5% or 7 1/2% of a selling price of £7.99 isn't much - but if the book is discounted and a royalty paid on that price, it's far less.

I know we writers are crazy idealists (Got to be, why else spend months and years of self-doubt and effort to produce our books) but where is it written that we have to pretend we don't really want to earn money for our work? I don't mean J.K.'s millions - just a nice living income so we can concentrate on the thing that matters most to us? Anything wrong with that?

Which brings me to the second news item: that Headline is going to publish the debut novel by comic writer Simon Spurrier online for free, in 6 weekly instalments from 24th May. Editor Piers Blofeld says '"Contract" was one of those very rare submissions that had me literally jumping out of my chair with excitement ... While there are obvious issues for publishers, the main point for me is that what writers need above all else is readers.' Well, duh, for the second time - but what about an income? Can someone please explain the logic of all this to me?

The book's website, ironically, is - and after free online publication, it's out in hardback on June 4th at £19.99. Once again, can someone please explain?


Fiona Robyn said...

Hi Lorna - found your blog through our mutual friend Jacqui L's site - love the quote at the bottom of the page! fiona

Lorna F said...

Thanks Fiona! It's always good to hear that there are people out there actually reading the blog. I'm intending to add more useful/inspiratinal quotes when I get round to it. Lorna

Si Spurrier said...

Hi Lorna - Si Spurrier here, the subject of that "second headline" catching your eye.

I'd be delighted, as requested, to try and explain - though my caveat is that all this stuff is really very experimental, and the theory doesn't guarantee the practice...

Let me first say that this "material for free" malarkey is really not as altruistic or anti-money-making as it seems. In fact it's all quietly calculated.

The biggest problem a debut author has - as I'm sure you found out during your "first time" (no jokes) - lies in the stunning apathy of retailers towards any author whose name does not carry a cache or an instant fanbase. In October, when the paperback of Contract is released, if my publishers can approach Waterstones and Borders and etc etc with the news that "this is the Hot New Talent of the Year! He's already been making massive waves on the Internet!", then we're in a far stronger position than before.

I know it seems really counterintuitive - giving stuff away for free in an attempt to make it sell better - but every version of this scheme that's been tried so far (admittedly they've been broadly restricted to sci-fi genre fare) has increased sales at the paperback stage.

Besides, in our case we've got a lot of "safety" measures built in. I'm cynical, for example, about the extent to which readers want to be trying to read novels from a computer screen; it just lacks that organic feel and ultimate portability that comes with a book. So we'll be releasing the novel onto the Internet in chunks, and if at any stage during that process people get fed up of reading from a screen, they're given the option to buy the hardback at a knock-down price via the website.

Also, when the entire novel is available for free, it remains on the website for only a couple of weeks. After that it's unavailable for six weeks or so, before the paperback is released. So there'll never be the feeling of "why am I buying this novel, when I could be downloading it for free..?"

Like I said, the whole thing is sort of cynically calculated, but I'm quietly happy about the fact that - if it works - everyone wins. Internet users are rewarded for their loyalty and appreciation of the novel by getting it for free, and every time they tell one of their mates about this Amazing New Novelist they found, it's another sale when the paperback hits the shops.

...Anyway, that's the theory. Like I said, it's still a biiiiig risk. Wish me luck!

Thanks for your interest!


Lorna F said...

Hi, Si - Thanks so much for getting in touch with a very lucid explanation. (I'm still taken aback that anyone is out there reading what I post!) I do take on board all that you say and I agree that we writers have to do whatever we have to do to create an audience. Certainly, since 'The Chase' first came out, the opportunities for doing so, through the internet, have multiplied enormously, which gives me hope that there will be more I can do myself to make myself visible should I publish a new book. Meanwhile, I wish you the very best of luck with 'Contract' - do let me know how it goes.