Saturday 15 July 2017

La Belle Sauvage, Amazon & the decline of Fleet Street – by Rowena House

I’m researching the First World War again at the moment, this time for a short companion piece for my traditionally-published debut novel out next year.

It’s a marketing idea borrowed from independent authors: a cut-price short story or novella, promoted on social media via the five-day give-away option on Kindle Select, and designed to tempt readers to your Amazon page, where – hopefully – some will buy the novel too.
Whether it will have any impact on sales I’ve no idea (I’ll let you know next year) but the story is asking to be told, and I find historical research brings its own rewards, so I’m going for it anyway.
I am troubled by the assumption behind this strategy: that cheap is best when it comes to selling stories. After all, this discount culture is one of the main charges levelled against Amazon by traditional publishers and bookshops which do so much to promote authors.
The debate about aggressive discounting of children’s books became particularly impassioned last week following this blog by Tamsin Rosewell, bookseller at Kenilworth Bookshop in Warwickshire:
What provoked her to speak out were the heavy discounts being offered by the biggest names in book retailing on pre-orders for Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, volume one of The Book of Dust. At the time of writing Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith and Foyles were all offering hard copies for £10.00, half the recommended retail price.
As Ms Rosewell said in her blog: ‘To be part of the buzz, we would (as it looks at the moment) have to sell this book at a loss or for no profit at all, or we could consider not stocking it. But how can we possibly not have The Book of Dust in our stock and prominently on display in the shop? What kind of bookshop would not stock The Book of Dust?!’
Book people on Twitter reacted to her blog with shock and dismay. Philip Pullman himself joined the debate, saying he’s always been a strong supporter of the former Net Book Agreement, which once guaranteed retail prices. By the time Ms Rosewell had to open her shop at 9 a.m. she said she’d received hundreds of replies.
Coupled with her concern about the impact of discounting on author incomes (the lower the shop price, the lower the royalty) her pleas for fairer pricing made me think again about my responsibility towards bookshops like hers in the face of cut-price competition.
Now there’s nothing I can do about Waterstones or Foyles; the price of my novel will be set by my publisher and the stores. But what about Amazon? Should I avoid it altogether as some supporters of the physical book trade advocate? Am I helping to cut the throat of independent bookshops everywhere by giving away my novella, or selling it at the same price as a can of baked beans?
On the other hand, is there any point whatsoever fighting against one of the greatest revolutions in retailing ever? Amazon won’t notice our protests. And with average advances so low, how can authors afford to boycott this global marketplace?
I think my fatalism about Amazon has a lot to do with my early days as a journalist when (and I’ll say this in a whisper) I worked on Fleet Street at a time when vans stacked with the Evening Standard and Sun would roar out from the side streets with the newsprint literally hot off the presses. I even subbed on the ‘stone’ – a damn great granite worktable supporting the heavy frames for the broadsheets – with a compositor setting the city pages of the Financial Times in hot lead metal. It was another world, another time. The battles fought by the unions against Rupert Murdoch’s new computer technology now seem futile and doomed to failure.
Yes, I know that today there are figures ‘proving’ that e-books are on the wane in the UK and physical books in the ascendance, but I’m afraid that I don’t trust them. I think they’re partial statistics being used to make a case that traditionalists dearly wish to be true. As an investigative journalist, I want to dig down beneath the headlines into the real data to find out what’s actually going on. I suspect I’d find at least some of those lost adult fiction sales in the e-book market.
OK, I might also find that children’s books are the exception. But five year olds have phones these days. Why should they only play games on them and not read e-picture books? And what’s easier than giving your child or grandchild Apple Store or Amazon credit as a birthday present? Kids don’t need a bank card to shop for books online.
I worry that by resisting this online trend, by not aggressively seeking out e-sales, traditionally-published authors (and our publishers) risk missing out on a growth sector that should be central to our long-term economic planning.
So yes, I do think authors have to adapt to Amazon whether we want to or not, just as independent shops like Kenilworth Books have to shrug when the big High Street retailers discount the latest Wilbur Smith or Robert Harris, and accept there’s no point in them stocking it.
But like Ms Rosewell, I also think we have to shout out when a big launch like La Belle Sauvage could (possibly) be the Harry Potter for a new generation, and benefit the wider industry from an upsurge of interest in great children’s books.



Mystica said...

Being so very far away from the purchasers of books, I was a bit removed from this debate. Thank you for pointing out salient features which I had never realised.

Rowena House said...

You're very welcome. It's a huge debate. Sometimes I think it's like a bag of eels: hard to get a grip on!

Susan Price said...

I've self-published, with my brother Andrew Price, a picture book of Three Billy Goats Gruff - and it sells quite a lot on Kindle. It's also borrowed (Amazon pay us a small fee for each loan, rather like PLR). As Amazon shows you how many pages a buyer has read (because the loan amount is calculated per page)we can see that each loan of the short picture book has been read many times.

So there is interest for picture books on smart-phones and tablets.

Andrew Preston said...

Speaking as someone, who at an exceptionally skint moment of my life,walked into my local Morrisons supermarket. I spied at a counter, one of their shopping baskets full of a particular type of digital camera memory card. At 50p each.

I went to a library, looked up the typical selling prices of this type of card, then dashed back to the shop. Credit carded about 200 of the items, then sold them over the space of 3 or 4 months at around £10 each.
On Amazon.

I loathe Amazon. Their monopolistic attitudes, the way they treat people who work in their distribution centres. The way that if someone 'buys' a book on Kindle, they never really own it. They can't pass it on, sell it, lend it to their friends. And if they so choose, Amazon can delete it from that persons Kindle device.

That defines an organisation that really needs to be broken up, or forced to change their ways. And, in the case of books, the cryptographic access key be given, at point of sale, to the purchaser. Who is then free to do with it what they want. Change it, to keep Amazon away from that copy. or loan the key out on a one time basis to a friend. Who must in some form return the key. After which the key can be given out, or loaned again.....

It's your book, you paid for it, who are Amazon to prevent you doing with it as you wish ?

As a non-writer, someone who does not read books professionally, who reads rather than consumes them, who reads mostly library books, and when I buy, it's usually from Waterstones ( convenient to where I do an amount of shopping )..., I just think that unlocking Amazons grip on e-books would also unlock the ability of independent bookshops
to set up their own e-platforms, actively market, inexpensively, to their own customers, and revitalise things for everyone. That is, a free, mixed market of sellers and purchasers.

Rowena House said...

Glad to hear of your success, Susan. I hope sales go really well for you. And Andrew, I'm not a fan of monopolistic capitalism, just a pragmatist.

Andrew Preston said...

Pragmatist, fatalist..., not the same you know.

Perhaps things have changed with Amazon, or..? But, when I did a little selling there, I concluded that sellers were like prisoners. Amazon create the aura of trust for purchasers. But you as a seller ? What do you know about your buyers. Can you email them ? Can you market to them through Amazon ?

When was the last time some writers got together, and demanded meetings with government. Noises about anti-competitive practices.

Sorry, if this doesn't quite fit into directly into the theme of the post.

Unknown said...

Great article Ro. As you know, I plan to publish my book on KDP & IngramSpark - it'll be available as a paperback & an ebook - I'm not pursuing the traditional route out of choice not necessity. But either way I think authors are selling themselves short if they don't use all markets available to them. I wish you well with your novella x

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Jak. And I'm really looking forward to reading yours. Choice is a very valuable thing. xx