The Price of Books

I am fortunate enough to work in both bookselling and publishing. Books and bookselling are my passion but time and time again, myself and fellow booksellers are faced with this very common scenario:

Customer: have you got ………….. in stock?

Bookseller: Yes, we do, I’ll go and get it for you.

Bookseller brings the book back and the customer has a good look through. After a while the customer comes to the desk and says one of several things:

– Do you price-match?

– Thanks, I’ve had a good look, I definitely want it but I can get it cheaper online.

– Is it on offer?

Our answer is No. We don’t price-match

The customer will then discard the book and nonchalantly stroll out, no doubt thinking, great, I’ve seen the book and I’m going to save myself 75 pence (or some-such price)by buying it online (despite the fact that it just cost £5 to park the car, petrol on top, for a day of browsing). We’ve all done it. At this point I want to shout after the customer:

Wait! Do you have any idea how much work goes into the making of a book?

So, if I were to sit the customer down, I would say this:

Books are not only tangible but elemental and alchemical things. Books hold the essence of what it means to exist; they depict the human voice, the human idea and the human imagination. They help us to understand others and ourselves. So, a book is not simply a single manufactured thing like a fork or a lampshade – it holds so much more within. But not just this, the production line for a book is complex. If you take into consideration the length of time it takes for a single tree to grow from a sapling into an adult, the effort for that tree to be responsibly felled and countless others in order to make paper; to the thousands of (unpaid) hours the author spends writing, re-writing and editing the work. And then, the time comes when the work is accepted by an editor, who then takes months to edit the book into publishable standard, then it goes out to designers, proofreaders, typesetters and marketing plans are created, then, eventually the book reaches the bookshelves and the booksellers sell.

All that work for a £7.99 paperback. Not a bad price, considering.

Pricing has always been a contentious issue, both in publishing and bookselling and it has been said in both workplaces that neither side wants to create this ‘bargain culture’. Under the previous MD, Waterstones endorsed the ‘pile high, sell cheap’ model where poor booksellers were knee deep in Jeremy Clarkson autobiographies and other celebrities, which didn’t sell. This didn’t work and jeopardised the future of an already ailing company. Why? Because Waterstones is not a supermarket and the majority of its customers are more discerning (thankfully) and they want range and diversity and a decent bookshop on their high street, but in order to have these things they must understand that books are the price they are for a reason and if the corporate tax avoiding giants such as Amazon are allowed to set the bar, there will no longer be that range and diversity. We, in the bookselling industry have a duty to the public and ourselves not to price ourselves out of business altogether.

So how low should we go? And what are customers coming into bookshops to buy?

As we see the fiction section depleting to create room for ‘related products’, things which are the accessories to books: notebooks, mugs with quotes, games, tea-towels, etc. Over the birthday cards and mugs, we find our answer: A relatively new and very exciting phenomenon designed to propel any author to international status via viral bookselling – the cyber store of social media – a sometimes dirty word, a guilty pleasure or an essential (depending on your view):

The ereader

The ebook

I am told that more people are buying books than ever before thanks to this little device. The only difference being that these are electronic – virtual. Despite the resistance of those traditionalists, who want to smell the pages of a good book as they turn them (myself included). People’s reading habits have changed as well as their shopping habits and we must stay abreast of this, but we have to strike a balance – of course an eBook is a little cheaper to produce without the print costs, but they still cost time and money to produce and I would go so far as to say, they should be no cheaper than an average paperback. The publishing and bookselling industry should still be able to make a profit as those who sell the device do. After all, a kindle isn’t much without the literature to read on it

Those who still want to buy a book in a shop will still continue to do so and ebooks shouldn’t just be an alternative but an additional to the pleasures of reading. A bookshop should be of the highest quality and reflect that of its books: to be as inviting on the outside as it is on the inside. A customer said to me recently: I don’t like shopping online; I see things in here that I would never have come across had I not entered the shop.

So, when a customer comes into the bookshop they should not be expecting ‘cheaper’ but ‘quality’ and ‘choice’. I sincerely hope this is not an irreversible circumstance of our time and that we can survive the recession, the rent hikes and the undercutting by Amazon and Tesco, etc. and when I am asked, should we discount? I still say no, we should price a book at its worth otherwise those customers who so nonchalantly use our shops to browse, will come into town one day and find that we are no longer here and they have to go to Asda to browse through a choice of ten mass-market productions. A horrible thought.

Rebecca Parfitt


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