It never ceases to astonish me how easily UK publishing allows itself to be seduced into the most self-destructive commercial ventures, apparently never considering the bigger picture. It’s like the ridiculous Dr Pangloss – ‘everything is for the best in the best of all possible business models’. Or like the old joke about the man who falls off a skyscraper and is heard as he passes each floor, saying ‘So far so good’.
I’ve gone on at length before about the Year Zero impact of the scrapping of the Net Book Agreement (hilariously described by Thatcher’s beloved Institute of Economic Affairs as a cartel operated by ‘Hampstead socialists’). That was the result of a court decision (we know how sensible the British courts can be), but it needn’t have led to quite such a comprehensive surrender to book chain and supermarket bullying as we soon witnessed. The court ruling was that bookshops are free to discount any book they wish. But the consequence of this was not, as the Office of Fair Trading appeared to expect, greater choice and access for consumers – rather it put power firmly in the hands of a few big book chains and supermarkets who would demand ludicrously inflated discounts to fund their price cutting, leaving publishers hopelessly divided. If one publisher refused Waterstones’ demands, another would happily step up and oblige.
This is all well-documented and the arguments in the 1990s against the NBA’s abolition have largely proven to have been well founded. And since its abolition we have witnessed the increasing dominance of the supermarkets, who cream off the best-sellers and the mass market attention-grabbers. This is important because one of the arguments against the NBA was that discounted bestsellers would draw people into bookshops where they would see and buy other, fully priced books. How will that work in Sainsbury’s or Tesco? You’re more likely to come out with a two-for-one pizza or a bunch of wilting flowers.
And now Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins – one of the first publishers to abandon the NBA even before the court ruling – has dragged the industry further into the lowlands of commercial suicide with the announcement of its exclusive three-book deal with Sainsbury’s. That’s right, the HC imprint, Arvon, specialising in women’s and romantic fiction, is to choke off all other retail routes and deliver three brand new novels to the supermarket chain that laughably won the Bookseller industry ‘general or chain bookselling company of the year award’.
Publishers have long since resorted to the catch-all excuse for a book’s disappointing sales, that ‘we couldn’t get the supermarkets on board’. Well, to misquote Brecht, ‘pity the industry that is in need of supermarkets’. But, that aside, when, as an agent, I’ve suggested only half-jokingly that maybe we should be talking to the supermarkets rather than publishers the suggestion has been immediately scorned and frowned on like a bad smell. Now it seems those same publishers are only too happy to surrender even more of their editorial control – and their very reason to exist – by allowing supermarkets such unprecedented say in what is published, where it’s published and how.
Publishers really have to open their eyes. Aggressive expansion from Amazon and other online retailers risks sidelining publishers over the next ten years, because they simply won’t need them. With paper books possibly supplanted forever by e-books in the years ahead, the publishers’ traditional strengths of design, production, marketing and distribution will become quaint remnants of the past. And as for the growing power of the supermarkets – it’s possible to spot in the HC/Sainsbury’s deal the first step towards a realignment that turns our publishing houses into contract publishers, working to the briefs of the retail giants.
Far-fetched? Go into Sainsbury’s and look at these exclusive books. Then ask yourself if that’s where you want the book trade to go.