Thursday, May 11, 2006

The close study of madness

Here in England, the Booksellers Association has been having its annual conference. Publishing News has a number of reports of the proceedings, but the one that caught my eye was an account of the session featuring marketing consultants Alastair Giles and Stephen Butscher. You ought to read the whole thing, but the chief points are as follows:

  • Present discounting is a form of madness. The trade lost £26.5 million on the last Harry Potter. (Presumablyy this means 'forfeited £26.5 million by giving large discounts on the official retail price'.)
  • If you ignore Harry Potter, sales of hardback fiction are down 25% in the last five years.
  • The tradition of pubishing hardback first, and only hardback, is crackers. We do it 'because that's the frame-set we work in, but it must be unprofitable madness.'
  • Giles's proposal: do the mass-market paperback version first, alongside a more deluxe paperback version. Then, a few months later, or even simultaneously, offer a hardback collector's edition.

There were other interesting sessions at the conference too. The speech from the BA President, David Roche, is worth reading. And then there's Michelle Harrison, of the Henley Centre marketing consultancy: she sees the electronic book as a serious threat to paperbacks, but is not offering an opinion on the timescale.


Unknown said...

"do the mass-market paperback version first, alongside a more deluxe paperback version. Then, a few months later, or even simultaneously, offer a hardback collector's edition."

There's already a part of the publishing market that follows this strategy, namely comics. Most graphic novels or comic series are sold initially through single trade issues and then, some months later, they get published together in a book. I wonder how comics are doing.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder why people who love God would find it amusing to emulate what he hates. And urge children to do so! He considers people who do wizardry and witchcraft an abomination, and he will drive them out of the land, Deuteronomy 18. For that reason, I do ignore Harry Potter, as charming as he and his creator may be. My Creator is a jealous God.

Anonymous said...

I'll ignore the above comment... Clearly this man hasn't read his bible recently. Plenty of stuff going on in there that might be seen as magic...

Back to the real world.

How do you lose money selling books at a discount? Do they mean they would have made more if they hadn't of done so? Ah come on. No one can be forced to give a discount. What are Tescos going to do if they dont get the discount they want? Send in the boys? Refuse to sell the publisher any more coffee and milk?

All this talk of high street stores being bullies is rot. No one makes the publishers give out large discounts, they do it because they think they can get rid of large volumes for minimal shipping costs.

Who do they really think they are fooling?

Martin said...

I've really wondered about the hardback first, paperback months later modus operandi. Except for the very rare cases when a favourite author of mine publishes a new book, I never buy hardbacks. Instead I think to myself, "That looks interesting, I'll wait for the paperback", and by the time it arrives, I've forgotten all about the book.

Paul Ekert said...

I think it used to be the way it was done, but now it is simply a way of milking fans for more money. Pratchett is a god example. Often he will be in the top 10 sales with hardback, then reenter again with the paperback. Some fans cannot wait and will pay the preimum, others hang on for a book that isn't so pricey.

I bought Harry Potter (the lastest one) in Hardback because I happened to be in an airport on the day it was released and they had hundreds laying about. Not sure if I would buy it in paperback though... Might not last so the read as it is a big book... Fun too...

Just to side track slightly, the anonymous author above seems to be getting high and mighty about the content. Does that also mean Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Rings and even The Lion the "witch" and the wardrobe are also "bad" books?

Anonymous said...

Two hundred years ago books were printed -and supplied - in paper wrappers, the customer's (local) bindery responsible for the quality and style of the "casing".

In this society which wants a disposable product it makes sense to introduce paperback before hardback edition. The hardback could thus in many instances be a premium product, properly stitched and sewn and one which would be produced from day one to be "collected".

Supermarkets, which unlike your "anonymous" commentator I would not classify as a "high street" retailer, would have little interest in stocking the premium hardback edition due to lower sales potential.

There is a very strong collectable market for well produced premium product books ; it is up to the trade collecively to decide which way we are going. All UK hardback would - hopefully - then be printed on quality acid free paper.

I am not an elitist : I readily accept change when it makes long-term sense, expect e-books to be a major market, very happily source POD for my customers. Paperbacks before hardback - yes, that is surely economic sense. Oh, and as for the Potter maniacs, why not introduce the (thick) paperback edition in two or even three "part-works" ? After all, the collected edition will be the hardback ; whereas the paperback is for "easy" reading - on transport, putting in with the lunch sarnies etc. A hundred and fifty years ago people used to be on the dockside in New York awaiting the latest part-work of a Dickens novel ; having a Potter novel introduced as a paperback in two or three seperate stages would ensure probably even greater sales, just so long as J K Rowling kept her readers enthralled.

Anonymous said...

By way of a quick PS to my earlier comments ; subject to approval from publishers I would expect that within 5 years many bestsellers will be available as e-books at the same time as the first paper (back?) printing is issued.

The cannon is very much in the publishers court, we dedicated booksellers are mere ball boys.

Anonymous said...

The anonymous comment above suggesting that publishers would never make a decision that didn't benefit them financially, and that therefore selling in a manner that loses money cannot actually be happening, is wrong. Unfortunately, the individuals working in publishing houses have histories of making terrible business decisions. It seems to come with the job title, or the job qualifications: "Must Be Weak-Kneed In Face Of Strong-Arms". The thing is that if you work in a publishing house, you're under terrific pressure to get large quantities of the books for which you're responsible into the marketplace. That's a big part of how you're evaluated. Did you get the book shipped, in large quantities, and onto shelves? Well -- suppose that in order to do this, you've got to do under-the-table deals that cause your company to lose money selling those books. Will you be punished? No, you'll be congratulated. Because what your publishing house REALLY is hoping for is a movie deal, or, terrrific paperback sales that spin off of reputation built while the book was LOSING money selling in quantity in hardcover, or other kinds of spin-off rights deals. Yes, it's very much accepted that publishing employees can and should employ tactics that cause their house to LOSE money during large chunks of any book's publishing history. The publisher is hoping to leverage that losing-money phase into a money-making phase later.

UNFORTUNATELY for a large number of hardback books, the second step never materializes! And thus, the publishing business is best characterized at present as a form of legalized gambling!

Didn't anyone ever tell 'em: In gambling, the house (Tesco et al) always wins.

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