A few days ago, a customer approached our counter. She had in her hand the just published, new edition of that wonderful reference work Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. Endlessly fascinating, it is an idiosyncratic treasure trove of word history, culture, folk lore and legend—and one of my favourite books. At £45, the price was more than our customer was expecting. I encouraged her saying that running to 1,600 pages it’s a monster of a book and one that will be used time and time again. For the right person it will become a loved friend in the bookshelf for a lifetime. Looked at in those terms, the £45 seems less daunting; more an investment and lifetime resource.
However, it seems a less worthwhile investment when The Book People and Amazon are selling it for £12.99.
I am well aware that since the demise of the Net Book Agreement every retailer can set their own prices for all books. I also recognise that, like supermarkets, some retailers of books might sometimes choose to sell at an unrealistic price as a “loss leader”. However, we also all know that there is some relationship between the discount a publisher gives and the price that a company can realistically sell at.
I think it is clear that selling a new book at over 70% discount (plus free postage on a heavy book) is way beyond normal discounting of new titles and one can only presume that the publisher, Hachette’s John Murray, has given a discount which enables this. If so, then surely it is short-sighted. It undermines sales through high street shops, which are under enough pressure anyway. Shops that support and sell across the range of John Murray’s books.
If you consider the publisher’s earned income from a title across different market sectors, then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that, in reality, high street bookshops are subsidising the discounts given to online and direct-to-consumer operations like The Book People.
We and our customers are treated as mugs.
Brewer’s might be a relatively recent addition to the list, but I believe at least six generations of John Murrays will be turning in their graves!
Peter Donaldson is managing director of Red Lion Books in Colchester.