'£50,000 to get a book on recommended list' said the headline. And the text which followed revealed how WH Smith (Britain's biggest bookseller) is 'demanding payments of £50,000 a week from publishers to get books on its supposedly impartial list of "recommended" reads in the run-up to Christmas this year.'
The story continues:
And so on.
The WH Smith scheme is the most expensive in a range of confidential deals being operated by retailers to promote lists that consumers believe are based on independent assessments of a book’s quality.
No authors appear on recommended lists unless their publishers pay the fees, and those refusing to pay may not even find their titles stocked.
Other big booksellers which charge for places on schemes such as 'book of the week' or 'recommended' are Waterstone’s and Borders, which owns Books Etc.
The most expensive is WH Smith’s 'adult gold' scheme, which is currently being presented to publishers who are expected to pay £50,000 a week per book for a place.
This guarantees a prominent position in the store’s 542 high street shops and inclusion in catalogues and other advertising. For the critical four-week Christmas sales period, it would cost a publisher at least £200,000 per book.
Well we've known all this for some time. The Sunday Times claims that it was the first to expose the schemes five years ago, but I've always believed that it was an anonymous article in the Spectator which first blew the whistle.
Now, however, publishers feel that the whole thing is getting out of hand. As well they might, if the prices quoted are correct.
The Sunday Times followed up this story with an editorial, if you please.
Well, actually, chums, you're five years behind the Spectator, and you've got some of the details wrong.
Most of us have the impression that titles placed prominently on display have been put there on merit. A book chosen as the week’s best read must surely be good or it would not have been selected by such a seemingly agreeable shop...
When you see a Waterstone’s book of the week, bear in mind that the publisher will have paid £10,000 for the privilege. Inclusion in three-for-two or other promotional schemes also involves money changing hands. There is nothing wrong in this if the shops are open about it. But customers are fooled because they believe that the titles come with the bookseller’s unbiased recommendation. Usually they do not. When record companies bribed DJs to plug records, didn’t they call it 'payola'?
In the meantime we are happy to have brought the culprits to book.
This whole question of bungs for books has been discussed on the GOB before. More than once. And the last time, in response to my rather tetchy comments, Nicholas Clee (a former editor of the Bookseller and himself a regular writer for the Times), kindly gave us details of how the deals are really struck. Here's what he said:
The reason people make a fuss about co-op promotions [between publishers and retailers] now is that they cost more, and are more visible. The principle is not new. The bookseller chooses the books; it goes to the publisher; the publisher pays.
It has been suggested that Waterstone's and co promote books only because publishers will pay for them. At the same time, one reads that Scott Pack is making the choices that determine what will be on the bestseller lists.
The latter assertion is a caricature, but is closer to the truth than the one about publishers simply having to get out their cheque books to buy space. Waterstone's, Ottakars, Borders and co choose the books they want to promote. These books tend to be the ones they think their customers will want, and they tend to be ones that publishers are prepared to back. I've heard of no instance of a publisher's buying space that a bookseller would not have given without financial incentive.