Just before the holidays, I was rattling round town looking for bargains in my last minute Christmas shopping – and I found one. But I was far from pleased. In WH Smith – a well known British store selling books, newspaper and magazines, stationery, greetings cards, music, DVDs, games and books – I found copies of a super new book at a great price. And the more I thought about it the more annoyed I became.
The Royal Horticultural Society’s New Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques is a comprehensive practical encyclopedia written mainly by the staff of the Royal Horticultural Society. It runs to almost 500 pages, in a large hardback format, and it’s packed with hundreds of step-by-step colour sequences revealing how to do almost everything you’ll ever need to do in the garden. It was published in the UK in October. At £30 (c$43.50) its cover price is set fairly for such a big fat colourful book. It was on sale for £6.25 (c$9.10).
This is bad for everyone – including the customer.
The store can’t possibly make enough on selling a £30 book at an 80% discount to pay for the light to choose it by or the paper the receipt in printed on, let alone enough to keep the store thriving. The publisher can’t keep its office running effectively and its staff properly paid on such a meagre sales price. As for the author… Gone are the days when authors received a royalty of 10%, 12.5% or even 15% of the cover price for each copy of their book sold. Now we often get a percentage in the same range of the price the publisher receives for the book from the wholesaler or bookseller – often 40% of the cover price (that’s why amazon can sell at such a discount) or even less. 10% of 40% is very different from 10% of 100%!
The result of all this? Publishers have reduced their staff and those who remain are crazily overworked; fewer books are published and publishers take fewer risks with what they publish; there’s turmoil in the bookstore business with independent booksellers closing everywhere, the much-loved Ottakars chain in Britain disappearing in 2006 and Borders in the US in trouble; and unless you’re a big star the idea of making even a modest living writing gardening books is increasingly implausible.
When, ten years ago, I first spent a lot of time in the US I was very taken with the slogan for the Christmas Tree Shoppes discount chain: “Don’t You Just Love a Bargain?”. A newly published £30 book selling for £6.25 is not a bargain, it's cheap. It’s too cheap.
We’re back to Oscar Wilde remarking that knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing is the definition of a cynic. Makes cynicism the flavour of the age, doesn’t it.
Good wishes for the New Year – to bookstores, to publishers, to gardening authors and, of course, to you.
You can buy the Royal Horticultural Society’s New Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques from the Royal Horticultural Society’s website at a modest discount (currently it’s priced at £25).
You can buy the Royal Horticultural Society’s New Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques from amazon.co.uk at a bigger discount (currently it’s priced at £19.50).
It's expected that a much revised American edition of the book will be published late in 2009.
Please don’t buy it from WH Smith. I’m not going to provide the link.