Today's Times prints a letter from Terry Maher, chairman of Maher Booksellers Ltd. In it, he discusses the discounting of the latest instalment in the Harry Potter saga.
What has happened, as you are doubtless aware, is that almost no bookshop on the entire planet has sold the new Harry Potter book at the price 'fixed' or suggested by the publisher. Instead, everyone and his brother have been selling it at a massive discount.
In the UK the nominal price is £16.99, but Amazon, for instance, offer it at £8.99.
Maher describes this process as 'a form of commercial suicide.' And of course he is dead right. That's exactly what it is. It is also a form of lunacy.
Maher expresses the hope that this mistake will not be repeated. But it's exactly what happened with HP5 (and the others, once they became famous), so why on earth should the next, and last, one be any different?
And when, one might ask, was the book trade ever a sensible business to be in, from a commercial point of view? Businessmen with experience in other markets, who blunder briefly into publishing and bookselling, soon realise what a nonsense it is and retire hastily.
Luke Johnson, for instance currently Chairman of UK Channel 4 TV, once owned a book publisher and found it ‘a painful experience.’ Generally, he said, publishing is a ‘terrible business… a barely rational industry.’ The cash-flow characteristics are unattractive. ‘You ship finished volumes to booksellers who only accept them on a sale or return basis, and demand at least 55 per cent trade discount, and pay 120 days later.’
In the circumstances, to describe the HP discounting as a form of commercial suicide seems quite restrained.