Monday, May 29, 2006

Bungs in Britain

Yesterday's Sunday Times did a little bit of work on quite an old story, and, in the true tradition of journalism, claimed that its report was new and exclusive.

'£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:

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.

And so on.

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.

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.

Well, actually, chums, you're five years behind the Spectator, and you've got some of the details wrong.

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure you are right about all of this.
However, am I being naive, but I am quite heartened when I go to our local borderstones (either) and find them promoting, say "modern classics". This example was the other week in Borders, where on their most prominent table they had a huge 3 for 2 display table of books of the ilk of Great Gatsby, Lord of Flies, Wild Sargasso Sea, a few orwells, et al. Waterstones have tables in all their specialist sections which don't seem only to feature new/fashionable books.

As I say, I am sure you are right in the main, I am not trying to disagree with you. But there do seem to be hopeful glimpses.

Incidentally, non sequitur, have you seen Tim Coates' blog? I am beginning to call him in my mind "grumpy old librarian" as he seems to be doing a similar job to libraries to you for publishers. He writes with experience and passion. Do have a look at some of his posts (you need to read a few to get the picture) if you haven't
Best wishes

Anonymous said...

Again, not new as a selling technique as it copies the supermarkets where "end of aisle" promotions, effectively paid for by the manufacturers, have been going on for years. All those "great deal" packets of washing powder are "end of aisle" because of Unilever's marketing budget and not Tesco's or Asda's or Sainsbury's.

Sadly, this adds to the debate concerning the disappearance of independent book shops and the impact this will have on book choice in stores. The bigger retail book shops will continue to highlight the books deemed to be bestsellers, even before they hit the shelves (a self-fulfilling prophecy, if ever there was one); supermarkets will carry the cream of best sellers and very little else; midlist authors will continue to struggle; and debut authors will find themselves subject to a lottery, with some of them wishing they could actually win the lottery to be self-published. Thus, some really good books will remain hidden under stones.

With a budget of £50k, it's clear the publisher is expecting a return to make that expenditure worthwhile. Therefore it's a done deal that the book will be a bestseller. "End of aisle" promotion, or "recommended list" - either is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is not a case of all roads lead somewhere, but a case of all roads leading to one point - the tip of the iceberg, which is composed of bestsellers only, and bestsellers being "bestsellers" because because of marketing spend.

It's also why two hardbacks from the same publisher come out at different prices at the same time. The £17.99 novel with limited price reductions will not sell as well as the one that hits the shelves at £12.99 and appears on Amazon at £8.97 or similar. Basic economic theory supports that and the publisher sees the £17.99 novel as more of a risk when it comes to marketing spend.

The Titanic hit the pinnacle of an iceberg and went down. Let's hope that book selling finds some roads leading to more open country so that readers can remain aware of the whole host of wonderful books and novels available to them, and not just this month's "bestsellers".

Thanks GOB, for raising and highlighting this issue again.

Anonymous said...

One thing I forgot in that long comment - a "recommended" label does not come with an "end of aisle" promotion. EOA is an apparent good deal you can't fail to notice because of the position of the product in the store. The "recommended" label and accompanying front of house positioning suggests that "this book is a good read" as recommended by some great authority with an insight into the reader's mind. Both, in my opinion, are versions of cloak and dagger marketing, but one is worse than the other. Neither can the product of creative art be effectively marketed in the same way as tin of beans.

Books are getting more like movies and music CDs - in the charts or dead. Books last longer. A lot longer. Please, let's respect them for what they are and market accordingly - and with respect for both the authors and the consumers.

Anonymous said...

An old "news" story as Michael so correctly stated : I don't think that any maiden aunts will be horrified to see that they are being "misled" by these recommendations because for the most part they are light reading titles which are mass produced as titillation for the non-thinking population.

For those not indoctrinated by the corporate world, then they will probably find that they are still spoilt for choice in most independent bookshops.

Nowadays, few indies are general stockists : many of us would not stock a single title from the top 50 bestseller lists, but prefer to offer our customers those titles which we believe are well written and will have long-term appeal. As with the secondhand booktrade where we have adapted to the general sales going to the charity shops, so within the new booktrade we have moved to higher ground and left the bestseller offerings to the discounters. We know where we can compete, and that is on quality - both service and stock.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how I missed it at the time, but I now see that Nicholas Clee's response (which you reprint above) to Your Grumpiness's last posting on bungs for books is one of the most stunning assertions I've seen on any subject ever. Anyone who has read it without astonishment should read it again. More carefully.

Clee's concluding statement -- "I've heard of no instance of a publisher's buying space that a bookseller would not have given without financial incentive" -- means exactly what it seems to say: the man is actually trying to make us believe that publishers bribe booksellers to promote books that they would promote anyway.

Well, if you believe that, you will, I'm afraid, believe anything. The whole world of trade publishing has become very murky indeed -- much more so than it ever used to be. In some spheres of activity, it is entirely appropriate that the money men should call all the shots, but when it comes to literature, the inevitable result is that books are marketed in much the same way as cans of beans: doesn't matter what's inside, just as long as it's beans.

Be very wary of all booksellers' promotions. Caveat, as I've said before, emptor.