Independent bookshops dismayed by not receiving signed copies of Philip Pullman's much-anticipated La Belle Sauvage have been cheered by a promise of "special plans" for indies.
Pullman's long-time editor David Fickling confirmed to The Bookseller that the publisher was planning to do something "exciting" specifically for independent bookshops.
Fickling said: “I can’t say what it will be yet because I need to check how feasible it will be first. We are looking at how to make the story more exciting [for independents]... Philip clearly feels strongly about this. I think Philip and DFB want to support independents as much as we can." He added: "Philip will decide how the plans take place and when.”
The promise came after anonymous blogger The Secret Bookseller revealed dissatisfaction with the fact that Waterstones had received 5000 exclusive signed copies of the first Book of Dust instalment, published on 19th October by Penguin Random House and David Fickling Books. This followed months of frustration from indies about the deep discounting of the hardback, reduced to £10 by major retailers rather than the r.r.p of £20, with Pullman himself calling for the industry to look at the issue of deep discounting.
The Secret Bookseller wrote of dismay over the signed copies in the blog, posted on 24th October, saying: “It pains me to say it but I am very disappointed that Philip Pullman saw fit to favour Waterstones over indie bookshops by signing high-value exclusive editions for their profit only. Philip Pullman was well aware that Waterstones were at the forefront of the pricing war, which has contributed to what he calls the 'absurd, destructive and unsustainable' situation, but still chose to favour them.”
The blogger criticised the fact that no indie bookshops had apparently been able to obtain signed copies of the book and revealed their shop had only sold three copies on launch day, “at a heavily discounted price”.
“I and my staff asked the publisher about signed editions on three occasions pre-publication and each time were told there would be none available to us,” the blogger wrote.
The blog created a stir in the indie bookshop community, with one bookseller, Richard Drake, inspired to contact Pullman directly for a response. The owner of Drake - The Bookshop, in Stockton, tweeted: “Wow! Strong (yet seemingly fair) words. I await @PhilipPullman reply with great interest.”
The author responded three hours later: “I know. I spoke to my publisher David Fickling today about something special we're going to put together for independent booksellers.”
A spokesperson for the two publishers told The Bookseller: "At David Fickling Books and Penguin Random House Children’s, we know and value the vital role that independent bookshops play in getting books into the hands of readers. It is testament to the hard work of independent booksellers across the land that La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One is also the Number One bestseller in the Independent Book Chart this week.
"This is only the start of the Book of Dust campaign and, from events to signed books and bespoke point of sale material, we will continue to look at as many ways as we can to support independent bookshops, alongside the whole of the booktrade, in selling Philip Pullman’s titles."
The spokesperson would not disclose whether any independent stores had received signed copies.
Fickling said he did not know if any independent shops had received signed copies but described the blog post as “really unfair”. “I feel for them but am also a little hurt," he said. "I started my career in a bookshop and am passionate about storytelling. DFB is about making good books rather than lots of money, otherwise I wouldn’t be an independent publisher. I understand that it is hard for the independent bookshops to match prices.”
Simon Key of the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green agreed with Fickling that the blog post "was too much of an attack on Philip Pullman and Waterstones". However, he added: "I thought there were some interesting and salient points. The question has to be, how can publishers and independent bookshops work better together. It is an age-old problem. At the moment, publishers will think there are so many of the independents, which do I go to? It is really hard for publishers and authors and it is frustrating for independent bookshops.”
But David Headley, co-owner of Goldsboro Books in London, described Pullman's plans as "too little, too late". He said: "I think the resentment is that he signed exclusively for Waterstones and has done nothing at all for indies which he claims to support. He had now tweeted that he’s spoken to his publisher and that are going to do something."
Marie Moser at the Edinburgh Bookshop said: "People were quite angry about the title being so heavily discounted. It is deeply frustrating. Sales here have been very good and it’s a frustration that it should really sell for full price and sell well. It’s a disservice to writers. The industry seem to think ‘It’s big, it’s new, let’s discount it’. But it’s not a supermarket book.” However she added: “The point of sale support has been excellent”.
Drake told The Bookseller that he felt the blog had hit a nerve because it was “what a lot of us are thinking”. He said: “Considering how vociferously Philip Pullman has argued for the need for independents, it would be good to have his support. I had not realised there was a special edition. Unfortunately until the supermarkets value products, it won’t change. I think publishers need to see independent shops as a whole. There are an awful lot more of us but unfortunately we don’t buy centrally because people think the individuality is what makes us different.”
Key believes that the central lobbying idea suggested by the Secret Bookseller could be a way forward. He said: “We could go to publishers and say, there are 300 of us, we would like an exclusive edition and in exchange we will stock so many thousands in our stores.
"I have had a lot of Twitter conversations about it and I hope the conversation won’t go away, I hope it will lead to something. If things are going to change then independent shops have to do something about it. Rather than moaning, we have to do something constructive.”
Fickling has invited the Secret Bookseller to meet with him to talk about a possible solution. He said: “I really want to meet them to discuss it. They think we are more powerful than we are. It is as hard to run an independent publisher as an independent bookshop.”
Waterstones has yet to comment.