Saturday, 13 February 2010

Supermarkets and fair trade books - Katherine Roberts

Like many other people, even though I prefer independent shops, I do a weekly food shop at my local supermarket. It’s convenient, the car parking is free, everything is together under one roof so it saves time, and it's affordable. It’s also a fairly pleasant environment with generally helpful staff, and I can always choose Fairtrade products or avoid those with vast numbers of air miles to salve my conscience. OK so far. But two things really annoy me. One is when they change the shelves around so I have to spend extra time wandering up and down the aisles to find all the things I want. The other is when they don’t stock a particular product I know is available elsewhere.

The first is a marketing trick, designed to tempt the customer into buying something they don’t normally buy, and I’m willing to play that game in exchange for convenience and affordability. The second is more sinister. Supermarkets know very well that, having driven to a location a mile or more out of town, few people are going to walk that mile in search of their desired product. Most will probably buy the nearest alternative (often an own-brand product) instead. I've even done it myself while muttering under my breath that I'm allowing myself to be controlled - but then that's the choice I make when I walk through their doors.

You might not think it matters with food. A bit less tasty, maybe, a bit more sugar, a bit less healthy, a few more air miles, but it’s still food. In the words of Crocodile Dundee, “You can live on it…” But now supermarkets sell books. These used to be a bit of a joke, sparkly eye-candy people would pick up for their nieces and nephews at Christmas. But more and more these days I see real books on supermarket shelves, good solid novels that took their authors several years to write and are for sale in real bookshops in town for twice the price.

Supermarkets don’t stock all the novels published, naturally. There’s not even as much choice as the hair products in my local store... clearly it matters more to people around here which hairspray they use than which book they read. But they stock books nevertheless, containing exactly the same words and often having exactly the same production quality as the more expensive variety. And your typical supermarket shopper, blissfully unaware of the range of other titles available, will pick up one of these books because it’s (a) convenient, (b) cheap, and (c) just as good as any other book in a particular genre, as far as they are concerned. You might argue the discerning book buyer will walk/drive the extra mile (or these days more likely 5 miles) to visit their nearest independent book shop, or simply head home and order their preferred title online. I’m sure you lovely blog readers would. I do, being all too aware of how tiny a royalty goes to the author from each supermarket sale (there’s a reason their books are so cheap). But most people won’t. They’ll buy what’s there under their noses at the time, especially if it’s half the price they can buy a similar product elsewhere.

This is a double-edged sword for authors. If your book is not stocked in the supermarkets, then you’re not only missing out on potential sales, but your book then looks ridiculously expensive in comparison to supermarket books, even if a customer does happen to see it on sale elsewhere. They’re going to need to be very motivated indeed if they are going to walk that extra mile to find it and then be expected buy it at full price. Chances are they won’t buy it at all, maybe not even online unless it’s discounted deeply. On the other hand, if your book is stocked by the supermarket then you might get good sales, but your royalty from each sale will be so small you’d do better buying them yourself and selling a few at your local school gates after marking them up by fifty pence or so.

There has to be something wrong when the discount given to supermarkets – or any other mainstream bookseller for that matter – is larger than the discount allowed to authors in their contracts for buying their own books without a royalty. I don’t know the actual figures (they are not easy to find out), but I can tell you my author discount has never been greater than 50%, with a proviso that I am not allowed to sell such books to the trade myself (presumably because this would mean lost profits for my publisher). And yet I’ve heard rumours of discounts MUCH bigger than this being given to supermarkets as a matter of routine. So how do these figures work out?

To my mind, the real threat to authors’ incomes is not Google or e-books or any other alternative technological format. It’s the supermarkets, who already dictate our diet, and have the power to control our reading choices and impoverish authors in the same way as they have impoverished farmers. Fair trade books, anyone? Or is that a dirty word?


Anonymous said...

I too am a supermarket shopper for the same reasons as you pointed out, convenience, choice and affordability.

I must confess I have bought books from a large local supermarket, even when they are on offer. But I do prefer going into old book shops and sifting through the miles of choice that they offer. I simply just cant afford their prices - hence why I am amazons best customer!

It's such a sad state of affairs that everything has to revolve around money! But I do have a baby to provide for afterall. And he loves books already - at 11months.xx

steeleweed said...

The entire publishing business model is broken and in the process of being replaced. Until a new one is established, it's a messy situation.
I suspect that in another 10 years, traditional publishers will be gone.

madwippitt said...

Equally there's the annoyance of chains like the utterly useless Waterstones. As Ottakers they were fabulous and nothing was too much trouble and if you ordered a book they hadn't got in stock, weren't expected to pay for it until it arrived. The ex-Ottakers staff who remain are still wonderful but despairing of the policies now instigated and the range of books stocked - similar on the whole to those supermarket shelf contents. I rushed out to buy Connie Willis and Diana Wynne Jones' latest books - both notable publishing events - and neither was in stock, were unlikely to be - and I could order, but pay in advance please, and likely to be a couple of weeks before they were in, no we have no idea exactly how long. I gave up, went home and hit Amazon, receiving them promptly. Sorry, I think I have lost the plot here but I was so CROSS grrrrrrrrr

Katherine Roberts said...

Oh no... and there I was rather hoping someone would reassure me that publishing DOES still work and I'm just being short-sighted... but if you can't find the new Diana Wynne Jones something must be very wrong out there. (Madwippitt, I'd suggest ordering the book from an independent bookseller, assuming you can find one. It'll come in a day or two at most and you're not expected to pay upfront.)

From the other side of the fence, I have been getting a lot of the "we really love this, just trying to think how we can sell it in today's market" comments from publishers lately. If I were a new author instead of an experienced and award-winning one, that might help, but short of killing myself off and being reborn as someone else, not sure how I can manage that.

If the system is failing both authors and readers, then it must be quite badly broken. I just hope a new system emerges from the ashes of the old one very soon...