Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Payola in the book business

About three years ago, the Spectator published an article which 'exposed' some of the ways in which UK publishers obtain publicity for their books. (The ArtsJournal provides a brief summary: In Blurbs We Trust.)

In short, what happens is that publishers pay booksellers to label a particular novel (or non-fiction work for that matter) as 'book of the month'.

According to the original Spectator article, W.H. Smith charges £10,000 to call a book ‘Read of the Week’. Books etc.’s ‘Showcase’, and Borders’ ‘Best’, both cost £2,500. And Amazon demands £6,000 for its ‘Book of the Month’ endorsement. To have a book called the ‘Latest Thing’ will set you back £15,000, and for an author to be labelled ‘Fresh Talent’ costs £2,850.

As I recall, there was come mild quibbling over the figures when they were first published, but no one seriously contested the general principle, namely that UK publishers were paying in order to have their books given favourable labels by the bookshop chains. And, of course, they were also paying just to have books piled in a highly visible position, right by the door.

In 2001 this was news, in a sense. Most people, particularly most writers, hadn't realised what was happening. And I can't say that I had realised what was going on either. However, for anyone who bothered to think about it, the truth should have been blindingly obvious. We have known for years that supermarkets were demanding that their suppliers should pay them for giving their products a favourable shelf position, so why should the book business be any different?

Oh, you thought that publishing was run by gentlemen, did you? And I as good as confirmed the fact yesterday with my comments on the general way in which business is conducted. Well yes. Publishers may be gentlemen (on a good day). But the big booksellers live and die on the high street, and they are the ones calling the tunes here. As are the supermarkets too, of course. And the publishers have the bruised balls to show for it.

Anyway, the thought that crosses my mind is this -- and I ask a rhetorical question, to which I do not necessarily expect an answer. What is the difference between booksellers demanding payments from publishers, on the one hand, and the good old payola racket in the music business on the other?

A few words of explanation are, I think, required for younger readers. Back in the 1950s, in the United States, there were several thousand radio stations. It was also obvious that, if you wanted to create a hit record, and make lots of money, you had to persuade a large number of those stations to play your record. And the simplest way to persuade the disc jockeys to play your record every hour on the hour was to bribe them. This was known as 'payola'. The payment was sometimes in the form of cash, and sometimes in kind, e.g. a bag of cocaine or a freebie with a fancy call-girl.

In the course of time, the American courts made payola illegal. However, the rewards for selling lots of records remain great, and modern recording companies have developed new ways of exercising persuasion. It is these practices which, in the last week, have been called into question by the New York state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer.

Presumably, the legal position in the UK is that supermarkets can bully their suppliers without government interference, and the bookselling chains are likewise free to 'offer publishers the opportunity' to have their books drawn to the public's attention. But what is the difference between paying £10,000 (or whatever) to have a book labelled 'read of the week', and a good old-fashioned bribe?

Well, obviously, one is 'legal' and goes through the accounts office, and the other one doesn't. But apart from that I can't see any difference at all myself.

Not, please note, that I am at all exercised about this particular book-trade practice. In 2001, when the news broke, there was a certain amount of huffing and puffing: some novelists wrote stiffish letters to The Author. But to me it seemed no different from a publisher paying for advertisement space in a newspaper.

However, it may well be that some of the smaller publishers feel thoroughly aggrieved about this. They can't afford £10,000 to plug a book, or even £1,000. And perhaps they might prefer a more level playing field. And there is also an opportunity here, surely, for some bright young prosecutor, or MP, to make a bit of a name for herself by pressing for legislation.

Remember you read it here first.

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