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, is 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 I don’t trust them. I think they’re partial statistics being used to make a case that traditionalists dearly want 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.
This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on July 15th, 2017.