A number of high-profile authors have recently criticised the high-discount deals often made by publishers. On the face of it, the argument seems reasonable, why sell huge-selling books at stupidly high discounts when people would buy them regardless? It's damaging to independent bookstores, who can't compete, and bad for authors, who have to accept lower royalties on these high-discount special deals. I am a low-profile children’s author, and I also work in publishing. My views on this issue are a little different.
Firstly, as a low-profile author I appreciate the efforts my publishers go to to try and get my book into the hands of children. If I have a choice between selling 300 copies at standard royalty through the handful of trade bookstores who actually stock my books, or 30,000 copies at a low royalty through a direct sales outlet then I’ll take the latter every time.
I’m not really in it for the money in any case. I just want to know that my books are being read.
But putting on my publisher hat, I can let you know that it’s not an either/or. It’s both. The low-royalty, firm sale deals tend to target people who aren’t regular book-buyers. Sales through the Bookpeople, Costco or TK Maxx don’t tend to cannibalize sales through Waterstones or Foyles, if they did, we wouldn’t do them. Publishers are not stupid, if there’s a risk of a brand being diminished by selling the books cheaply, then we won’t do it. We walk away from such deals all the time.
Most high-discount deals aren’t made on the mega-selling frontlists in any case. They are made on back-list or mid-list titles once the initial sales surge has died away. It’s about prolonging the sales life of those titles, refreshing them, or getting them into the hands of a new generation of readers.
High-discount deals increase not only the total number of sales but also the size of the market. If even a tiny fraction of the new readers we get books into the hands of end up as being avid readers as a result, then everyone wins.
Because the child who receives a cheap copy of a classic book at the supermarket today is the teenager who walks into Waterstones 10 years from now and buys up half the YA shelf. With bookshops and libraries closing at a rate of knots around the country then I am very much in favour of finding new outlets for kids (and their parents) to access books at a price that works for everyone.
But all of this is academic in any case. If a successful author doesn’t like the idea of selling books through certain channels, then that author can simply tell their agent that they want it written into all future contracts that they won’t accept any royalty lower than X%. The power to put a stop to these deals lies in the hands of the author.
If all bestselling authors insisted on such a clause in their contract, then high-discount deals wouldn't work and publishers would stop making them. That would level the playing field for independent retailers and increase author incomes. Mid-list or back-list authors could still see their books sold in all channels.
There may be an argument to bring back the NBA, but if so, I haven’t yet seen it clearly articulated.