Thursday, June 24, 2010

Free Market Necessarily Good for Books?

Since the NBA disappeared, 500 independent bookshops have closed. Borders has swooped on to our high streets – and then ceased trading. Dillons is a distant (bad) memory. The market has narrowed. The shelf life of most novels is far shorter, as are the careers of most writers. Statistics tell us that more books are published – but most of those are self-published or sold by tiny firms with next to no marketing push. The real story of the industry is the slashing of lists, mergers, collapses, buy-outs, sackings and losses on a scale never before witnessed.


Now, instead of a cartel, we have a virtual monopoly. An agreement that enabled dozens of publishers to set prices for thousands of booksellers has been replaced by a system that allows two or three big organisations to dictate all. Waterstone's book buyers, rather than the book-buying public, decide whether a book succeeds. Supermarkets tell publishers what price to sell at, how many copies to print, what to put on the cover, what to call books and even what to put inside them.
The Net Book Agreement, put into place in 1899 in the UK allowed publishers to set the retail price of books, but in the 1990's the agreement was torn up to allow free market forces to take over. But Sam Jordison in The Guardian asks whether this was a good thing for the book industry in the long term.

8 comments:

Awang Goneng said...

Alas, the NBA, we knew it well. It died in 1995 when Hooder Headline jumped ship, then all the rest followed. The book selling streets have been rattling ever since with the din of clattering shutters going down permanently on small bookshops. I was in Charing Cross Road this morning and saw that Quinto, the corner Antiquarian/2nd hand book shop has closed, caused by rising rents perhaps, not the NBA. But still, it 's the trend in this little road. Watkins closed its doors earlier this year and reopened again after a neighbour bailed it out, but for how long?). I heard the shrill voice among the comments in your earlier blog on this topic: this is the social Darwinian principle applied to the book trade, but this social Darwinian thing isn't the black spot pressed into your palm and then bang you're dead, it is a road sign to what can and should be avoided by thinking heads. More big chain booksellers means predictability of stock: go browse in your average Waterstone's, Blackwell's, Foyles even and see what you get. I'd rather be in Compendium, Mandarin, Zwemmer or Collets any time of day, for that fresh originality and diversity of stock, but alas, Compendium, Mandarin, Zwemmer and Collets are all dead, and their shells refurbished and resurrected as sex shops, Starbucks, Feng Shui centres and more Starbucks.

Why should the price of books be protected? Because the giants are in there merely for the profit and they sell sometimes below cost, sometimes they dictate costs to the publishers. They are mere sellers, they have no love of books. In France there is a law still that does not allow bigger bookshops to cut more than 5% off the publisher's price, but under little Sarkozy that too may be sacrificed. Many small publishers have little chance of seeing their books in the big bookshops. They used to rely on the small shops, but the small shops are all dead and all the little people are now buying books from the supermarkets. Soon to be sold by weight.

bibliobibuli said...

It breaks my heart too ...

I think Malaysians here only see what is for them the nice fallout of this free market fiasco - cheapie discount books at places like BookXcess and Big Bookhop after the supermarkets and chain bookshops have got rid of titles near their expiry date.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Scary isn't it, and for all of us writing (or dreaming of writing) novels, is there a future for us? I believe there is, just don't know in what form, perhaps an ebook, a sad thought.

But maybe there will be a reader's backlash and new independent stores, fueled by independent publishers with some internet marketing, social-media savvy will buck the system and show others a new way to survive in a niche market, like a boutique store for books. Yes, they might be pricier, but the satisfiying quality will be there. Basically you get what you pay for, a rough-drafted, self-published book with little or no editing or the real thing...

Preets said...

Thank you to Awang Goneng for saying much more eloquently what I've tried to say before. I'm generalising here, I know, but Malaysians are inveterate capitalists. How to convince them that the free market is not such a beautiful thing?

I hope Little Sarkozy doesn't manage to touch the protections afforded to small booksellers here in France. Those protections are at the heart of France's vibrant and diverse literary culture.

Awang Goneng said...

Hi Preets. Congratulations! I love your Demi Moore pic in the blog! And thank you Sharon for raising this issue. Cheap books come at a price, and authors (and I'm only a fledgling one) earn a pittance unless you're some big names like Dan Brown. Many famous writers are now writing under pseudonyms for the big cash, writing in the style and genre that those giants like. Also, some publishers now over-price their books for a purpose, so that all those discounts will look good in those big bookshops and supermarkets. This is how the 'free' market works.

And of course there's tautology in my earlier remark. Watkins closed its doors earlier this year and reopened again... Heh, heh, how's that for a lark ;¬)

PS My word verification is 'unwori'. What me worry?

Greenbottle said...

i'm an idiot here but bear with me. i'm writing as a book reader/lover and not a writer. the way i see it, everything must follow market forces. just like in other business. the problem with books is that rubbish sells. much like in other art forms like music and films.

what mr goneng said is interesting about some famous writers writing under pseudonyms for big cash- presumably writing rubbish for mass market(otherwise why are they ashamed and hide under these pseudonyms eh?)

as a consumer i have no qualm whatsoever if big bookstores or indepednent booksellers go under or one day i have to resort to buying my books with my groceries.

i don't care as long as i can get my books. the real concern is probably more and more writers succumb to these market forces and start writing rubbish to make ends meet?. thereby perpetuating the availability of rubbish more and more.

but the real scary thing is that nobody care very much about 'good' books these days. come to think of it nobody really ever care about good books full stop...check any top ten books in any newspaper today or ten years ago...what we see in there are nothing but rubbish...

the real problem the way i see it is that 'good book people' failed to make people intrerested enough to ro read good books...for a start there are no real book reviews or good reviewers in many newspapers ...

another interesting point is why rubbish sells but the 'good' books don't?
i guess the answer to that is that 95% of human population don't mind rubbish...just a fact of life...

GeneGirl said...

As a person who forms relationships with books and bookshops, I find this distressing.

I love the quaint Parisian bookshops where you walk in and feel as if each book speaks to you, asking to be carressed in a subtle way. It is almost a romance....

I cannot get into the intricacies of capitalism, but I have my personal view on it, and if enough people treat books as I do, it will form a force, strong enough to keep the small timers going.

To exemplify, living in Germany, to get my stock of English books, it would be easiest to click on Amazon.de, but I would rather step into the quaint English Tea and Bookshop in Köln....simply because the owner would understand and console me about the fact that I have gone off Terry Pratchett, or that I should give Stigg Larsson a chance.
Anyway, I digress, and to all my writer friends...please know that I will be personally buying copies of your books :)

K said...

You have not gone off Terry Pratchett, Terry Pratchett has gone off writing well.

I get my books for free now, books that people have loved enough to buy, and now they give them away because they've already been read. I have bought my share of books (have about 15 of TP's books) but the latest ones are dissapointing to say the least.