#scotbookconf | Trade Question Time Panel: “What on earth are we doing? We are nuts.”

Publishing Scotland Conference – COSLA – 24th February 2015.

A brief interlude of back-and-forth between the panel and audience on many of publishing’s biggest issues, featuring Jane Pike, Sara Sheridan, Marie Moser, Keith Charter and Elaine Henry, chaired by Jenny Brown.

What’s the future for books in a challenged landscape?

best-books“Books always have a future,” says Elaine Henry of WordPower books. Amazon is king, but she “wants to live in a republic.” Book selling is about creativity and flare, which is “miles away from drone deliveries.” There’s always a challenge, but they need to keep focussing on the right thing, which is what they are currently doing.

Author Sara Sheridan says it’s like the Armageddon question. “People think change is always bad, but it can be really exciting.” It create an interesting landscape and challenges the assumption of what book buying is. It brings opportunity to a diverse market.

Keith Charter, author and publisher, says that it is “no longer enough to just be there.” It’s made people think about branding. It’s forced everyone to up their came, and they need to be better placed to take advantage.

Canongate’s Jane Pike notes “The future is already here.” Marie Moser of the Edinburgh Bookshop echoed what everyone else said, but with a caveat. You need to adapt to survive, the consumer is not a static entity and you need to stay relevant. Her caveat is that she “hopes the publishing industry doesn’t overlook statistics. Not everything is online.” Digital is important, she notes, but it’s telling that the YA/kids market are not adapting like people thought. The print/physical side still matters.

From the audience Nielsen’s Kirstie Wainwright says she has watched the trade grow to £1.7b then crash, then digital take off in 2011. It was a static market before, but change is good. Before people followed rules, now they get to make their own.

How can authors have sustainable careers, when advances and incomes are diving?

Sara notes that “a lot are having difficult times”, and proposes a limited revision of the NBA, on deep discounting. She also feels that publishers don’t consider authors as part of the team; most of the complaints she’s heard has been a lack of communication from authors who don’t get to see their blurbs or covers when they ask. Authors won’t collapse if you give them bad news, they’re criticised constantly anyway. Authors as part of the team would help. She also feels that females get less advance coverage and reviews, as well as earning a lower average wage, which is not fair.

Keith disagrees with many of her points as both a publisher and an author. “If you don’t include an author, you’re mad.” But he says that you can’t throw advances around, only the author can make it work. The Bookseller have covered the exchange on this topic very well, if you fancy some extra reading!

The topic of royalties comes up, and the perceived unfairness of being paid three months in arrears on average, but they justify it in paying upfront costing the business more in the long run, and this is the fairest compromise.

Jenny from Canongate says that there is a pressure on publishers to spread across their major list, so advances can be tough. The agenting role is key: some talk about authors in terms of their careers, others can be book by book.

Marie’s burning issue: Discounting to major retailers

ASDA_in_KeighleyEach panelist was asked to pick a burning issue, and this is Marie’s. Supermarkets are not your friends, she says, they’ll sell big brands cheap, don’t care what they sell as long as it plays their game. There comes a point where people need to tell them where to get off, “we all need to grow a pair.” Everyone time you knock £1 off something, you’ve got to make £2-3 to recoup it. Supermarkets and big retailers put people out of business.

Jane notes that “for a publisher, it’s tough.” You’ve got to play with big corporations, but their heart is with the indies and booksellers. Matt Haig, for one, is going around almost every one in the land in his upcoming tour.

An audience member notes that books are a prime product and immediately discounted: “What on earth are we doing?” gains applause. “We are nuts.” He adds that if you don’t like it, don’t do it.

Elaine adds that WordPower doesn’t discount instore. Shops have the choice and stock. “We try to have more voices and being a welcoming shop.” She notes there’s a ready made radical book tour should any publisher want one around the UK, but most seem to ignore the option.

Alban Books’ Johnny Gallant adds that the previous day he happily spent £4.99 on a card, but people wonder about £8.99 for a book. He also questions if he is naive in thinking that the cliche of the struggling author comes from people viewing a peak as a golden era, when it’s since levelled out? Freight’s Adrian Searle notes that three novelists from Glasgow’s Creative Writing course that he knows all have gone on to get advances upwards of £130k, so the money is still there.

Another attendee feels the prices are set by Amazon and supermarkets who can make their money elsewhere. He claims it’s madness that the retailers have the power, it’s a symbol that they can sell products cheap, regardless of the brand. They’re devaluing our key product. Sony and BMW have a good strategy, which publishers should try: Cut off supply to those who undersell their product. It will maintain quality and integrity.

At some point, a reference to Harry Potter’s inflated prices to counter discounts is raised, but is countered by an attendee who ends up with the final word: “The price is not controlled by publishers. Harry Potter, post-book three, had no extra discount given” and it made no difference whatsoever. She refers to the fact that one year Smiths didn’t price promote as much and started again the next year, as that had altered consumer-perception of them.

Too little time for a diverse, sometimes heated, discussion on many ins and outs of publishing. Interesting points raised and a lot of views held across the room, if only there had been more time to really get into it.

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