Unpredictable Friday

First, the good news. UK book sales remain in growth and are getting stronger, thanks in part to the release of Michelle Obama’s Becoming (Penguin), a second strong week for David Walliams’ Christmas favourite The Ice Monster (HarperCollins Children’s) and continued good sales from paperbacks such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (HarperFiction), Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt (Picador) and Anna Burns’ Man Booker-winner Milkman (Faber). With all that is going on in the UK and beyond, that really is positive heading into the Christmas trading period.

The less good (but still OK) news is that this growth is being achieved from less, not more. The number of physical books sold each week is (mostly) not rising, but the prices being paid for them are. Discounts, which have been falling for a few years, continue to hold steady, even as Black Friday descends.

The unpalatable truth is that the era of big discounting is not behind us. The big discounts continue to be applied on the biggest books, even if their use is more judicious than it once was. It is also true that we are never far away from an algorithmically driven price-war, as may currently be the case with Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, which has an r.r.p. of £45, but which is selling through The Book People and on Amazon at £12.99—at least it would be, if Amazon were not currently listing it as out of stock.

Amazon has form in this area. But it is, too, no longer the discounter it once was. In price-matching The Book People but then putting the book out of stock, it is reminding customers that it will not be beaten on price, while indicating to the publisher (in this case John Murray) that it is aware a rival retailer has cut a deal. In the old days, Amazon would have continued to sell the title and take the hit on its margin. Now it is happy to disadvantage the customer in order to make the same point. Nevertheless, Peter Donaldson, the author of the letter from indie Red Lion Books, is right to say that it is the high street bookshop that suffers—not, perhaps, because the deals are different to what they once were, but because the web makes them visible.

That said, this week’s 2018 value chart shows that among the biggest-selling books of the year there are many where discount has not been a factor in their success, from Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (Vintage), to Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography (Elliott & Thompson), to The Secret Barrister (Picador), to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (Allen Lane).

It has been argued that as the book trade looks to past bestsellers for its future hits, the business will begin to churn out identical must-haves, with price the lever. But that is not wholly the case. Of the five titles mentioned in the first paragraph, only two would have been considered a sure thing before publication. No algorithm could have predicted the performance of the four titles referenced in the last paragraph.

And long may it be the case. While books, and people, continue to be unpredictable, we remain in business.