Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Felicity Lawrence: Not on the Label

Not on the Label is a first-class piece of reportage by any standards. The author, Felicity Lawrence, is consumer affairs correspondent for the Guardian, and her subject is the food industry.

There are two aspects of Lawrence's book which call for comment. One comment concerns food, and the other concerns the book trade.

The subtitle of Lawrence’s book is ‘What really goes into the food on your plate’. And when you find out, you will wonder why you bothered to eat that last meal. Indeed you will wonder what permanent harm the meal did to your central nervous system. The overall message of the research in this book is conveyed in one sentence on page 207: ‘We are being fed junk, and it is making us sick.’ And she's not talking about high-street fast food here -- she's talking about standard supermarket fare.

If you care about your health, and that of your children, not to mention the fate of the third world, UK farmers, small businessmen, and other groups which are being wiped out by the food manufacturers and retailers, then you should read this book.

Now for the implications, for the book trade, of what Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label tells us.

The message which comes across loud and clear is not a new one. For forty years I have been hearing stories from businessmen of how, when you start to supply a big high-street chain (whether with food, clothes, shoes, or anything else), everything is rosy at first. You just cannot believe your luck to have landed such an important customer. And then, of course, the customer increases his orders until you are running like hell, just to keep up, and your factory is working overtime. And then they cut what they pay you. And cut it again. And again. And again. And your old customers aren’t interested any more because they’ve made other arrangements. So you’re stuck. You are no longer your own boss. You’re working for a slave driver, at slave rates.

Lawrence demonstrates how this has happened in the food industry. Take the farmers, for instance. Fifty years ago, 50p to 60p in every pound which was spent on food and drink in the UK went to the farmers. Today they get 9p.

Page after page repeats the same story. ‘You’d agree a price at the beginning of the season,’ says one apple grower, ‘then the week after it would be cut, then it would be cut again.’

And then the supermarkets demand that the suppliers should pay them for the privilege of selling goods in their stores. One supermarket told a major dairy co-operative that they would have to pay £1 million, up front, before negotiations on listing its milk could begin.

What has this to do with my novel, I hear you ask.

Well, my friends, your novel is now being sold in supermarkets. And if it isn’t, your time on the publisher’s list is likely to be limited. And what you can be quite certain of is that the supermarkets are going to get even nastier with the book publishers than they have been already. They will drive down the price that they pay for books. And then they will drive it down again, and again, and again. Just as they do with food.

The publishers will dodge and squirm and complain, but in the end they will just have to take it. And they in turn will cut costs. They will start using printers in Thailand. And they will use cheaper paper, cruder covers, and so on. But at the beginning of the day, never mind the end of it, they will pass on the bulk of the pain to the weakest party in their side of the negotiations. This is to say the writers.

The writers will be told that times are hard, and that they are just going to have to accept a much lower level of payment for books sold in supermarkets. In most contracts there is already provision for the publisher to make ‘special deals’ in which the writer receives only 10% (or less) of the sum received, rather than a normal royalty. This can mean a payment per book of perhaps 2p -- as opposed to, say, the 7.5% royalty on a paperback at £6.99, which is roughly 50p.

Writers who complain will be told to think of the great benefits to their reputation which arise when 50,000 copies of their book are sold through Tescos. ‘It will result in higher hardback sales for your next one,’ the publisher will say. If you believe that you will believe that Santa Claus will buy the film rights as well.

It won’t end there. Before long (if it hasn’t happened already), publishers will have to pay for the privilege of having their books made visible, instead of being buried under a heap. And then you, the writer, will be asked to pay the publisher to give your book some prominence in his next negotiation with the supermarket. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky you will just see a deduction on your next royalty statement.

But already I can hear mutterings of disbelief. Nah, you are saying. Couldn’t possibly happen. The people who work for my publisher are awfully nice. Very friendly. They wouldn’t treat me like that.

But that’s part of the problem, you see. Publishing people are indeed ‘nice’. Which means that they are wholly unfitted, by temperament and training, for the cut-throat, hard-nosed commercial environment in which they now find themselves. The supermarket buyers are going to eat them alive.