Back in the Spring, flushed with excitement and pumped with adrenalin, I embarked on my second bookshop event. As with the first, it was in an apparently well-heeled market town in Oxfordshire, a leafy idyll stuffed full of history, both ancient and modern. Until that first moment with a customer in that shop I had supposed my book, any book, was purchased according to merit or, at least, perceived merit. Not so. ‘How much is it?’ became a familiar refrain that day. Trace my subsequent route round a dozen towns and cities in England and you’ll see the relative prosperity of each clearly reflected by how many potential buyers asked the price.
The vast majority of shoppers expect to be given a discount in one form or another, whether it is club points, discount vouchers or special offers. Today it’s as true in bookshops as anywhere else. Waterstones’ famous 3 for 2 stickers have been with us for so long it came as a shock recently to hear the new management are withdrawing the scheme. It has been good for high street book buyers, and no doubt great for authors and publishers whose titles were included. But in its own small way it has made it harder for newcomers excluded from the promotion. Where a buyer might choose the new, the untried, as their third choice because they see it as being the ‘free’ one, they are more reluctant when they are asked to pay full price.
In late summer I found myself signing books in the delightful Hampshire town of Petersfield when Waterstones’ 3 for 2 had been temporarily extended to cover all adult fiction. The exact difference it made to sales is impossible to tell, but being part of the promotion certainly helped. I’m sure it was no coincidence that on a very quiet August day in a small branch I signed a record number of copies. And not a single person asked the price. On a level playing field, the new, the untried could vie for first choice, not just third.
When the majority of people are finding incomes squeezed and prices rising fast, the cost of anything in the ‘discretionary spending’ bracket is important. And there is plenty to help the price-conscious book buyer. Discounts and loyalty points may tempt some into a shop, but others will use their smart phone apps to scan ISBNs and automatically search for alternative suppliers both locally and online. In many ways it’s a buyer’s market where the most popular become even cheaper.
There is little else of which the same can be said. A quick survey in Oxford today reinforces the feeling that books are hugely undervalued: the classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy £4.49 at Waterstones, in the cinema it’s £9.20; a modest meal out £20, theatre afterwards another £20. Or if you’re of a sporting persuasion try League Two football at £18.
The increasing reliance on price to sell books is damaging. As prices are driven down by the frenzy of competition, independent bookshops and innovative publishers are not the only casualties. Very few authors can afford to write even half-time: there is just no money in it. They are expected to sell their work for less and less, even for nothing at all beyond the pleasure of writing. As the book becomes a commodity, treated by the supermarkets like milk or corn flakes, the price becomes all-important. The art of writing, of storytelling itself, is subtly devalued by every 50% off, 3 for 2 or World Book Day giveaway. And that is without even daring to contemplate what effect the avalanche of free titles in the e-book space is likely to have.
Change in publishing and the book trade is long overdue, failure to embrace it long ago has contributed greatly to the current difficulties. Many will say that archaic practices, pathetic management and naïve marketing are more to blame for today’s concerns than any supermarket intervention. And when government can see the cost of everything and the value of nothing in our libraries, perhaps we should not be surprised to discover the written word so devalued.