Time at long last to cut the Gordian knot: why the practice of publishers specifying book prices must go

Book Pricesby Ed Handyside, Publishing Director of Myrmidon

When we started Myrmidon in 2006, the price of a standard B format paperback was £7.99. Now it’s… well, £7.99.

‘Books aren’t commodities!’ is the plaintive cry we hear so often in the trade. Apparently not, for we all know what’s happened to commodity prices over the past seven years, despite a miserable economy for the last four of them. So what makes our products so depressingly immune?

It is my long held and growing conviction that the principal and underlying cause of the malaise that seems to be unique to our market is the time-honoured practice of publishers printing prices on books, and that until this is ended the UK trade in bound books will remain essentially rotten and broken.

I’ve never supported those who seek to make pariahs out of on-line retailers, supermarkets and large chain book retailers; they do what they do and are good at it: ‘sharks gotta swim; bats gotta fly’, as Tom Lehrer once observed. It’s long been my experience that there are usually simple and rational causes for aberrations in the market – and this one stares us in the face every time we pick up one of our products.

Such blame as there is lies squarely with publishers – and perhaps also with a few naïve literary agents and authors who cling wistfully to this last relic of the Net Book Agreement like the memento of a late, lamented grandmother. But the old dear is gone and she ain’t coming back and, unlike her benign-looking picture on the dresser, the effect on us all of what amounts to a virtual price cap on UK books is entirely malignant.

Faced with rising overheads, all booksellers have to derive a sustaining margin from somewhere, and if a printed price cap denies them the legitimate opportunity of getting it from the consumer they are inevitably forced to squeeze it from the rest of us. And it’s this that’s torn the heart out of trade publishing over the past two decades and rendered it a damned uncomfortable place to be for all but a handful of publishing behemoths and biggest-selling authors who can still make a good living from something that’s stacked high and sold cheap. The tab has been picked up by everyone else in the value-adding chain: publishers; mid-list, debut and aspiring authors and their agents; artists, designers, printers and typesetters – and High Street booksellers who, uniquely in the world of retailing, can only differentiate themselves from their competitors by varying prices downwards.

Book prices must be allowed to rise organically and incrementally (not just when publishers decide on the occasion of the biennial reprint). Booksellers themselves must be allowed and encouraged to spearhead that rise whenever they perceive an opportunity to do so. This is a necessary prerequisite for gradually enhancing the public perception of the value of books as and when trading conditions permit. Publishers are ill-equipped and insufficiently responsive to do this.

I’m aware that some of my publishing colleagues seem to derive some comfort from the status quo and a feeling that have some influence on the ‘fairness’ of the retail mark-up. I can only say to them – and to those literary agents that still hanker for RRP-based royalties – is that the price that retailers sell product to consumers is simply none of our damned business, and that to try to make it otherwise is both a vain delusion and contrary to our own interests.

If we are serious about increasing the real and perceived value of bound books (and e books too, since the price of the one is largely derived as a proportion of the other) then UK publishers and retailers, acting in concert, must take the first and necessary step of removing the printed publisher price. It’s not too late to do this, providing we start now. When we do, we begin to eliminate the very notion of ‘discount’ from the vocabulary of the consumer; there can be no discounting without something from which to discount.

A higher margin book trade will not only offer a lifeline to struggling booksellers; it lowers the break-even volume threshold for new publications, enabling an enriched output, offering a wider choice of titles to readers and far greater opportunities for new writers. It also means a supply chain far more capable of eliminating waste, inventory and returns to provide a much more stable cash flow for publishers and all those who supply them. The benefits are obvious.

So, when can we get started?