Beauty in the Eye of the Holder

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by Tom Chalmers

Whenever my day job comes up with friends or family, one of the first questions always asked is, ‘what about all these reader things?’ Even if I believe it will take a little longer than expected to make a real sales impact into the UK market, certainly for trade fiction & non-fiction, the e-book is definitely here to stay. And while publishers may be able to sell high numbers, they all know, or should, that as prices inevitably plummet they are going to make little if any profit per unit.

So, what about the hard copy? It is really finished? Well, fingers crossed, no, but it is currently heading towards a split between a spread market, with millions of books available & selling in low numbers, a boutique industry with a low number of books selling well through a relatively small number of outlets, and maybe the supermarkets still hammering out the top ten at next to nothing.

Ruling out the latter, as this will affect only the small number of publishers comprising that top ten, and the spread market: the operation of choice for the online outlet, the only market where publishers would truly profit is the boutique model. And how do boutiques survive – quality. Quality, uniqueness, and quality.

And so for the remaining bookshops to survive (a few excellent independents apart), they will have to change and change quickly. For too long, we have hammered down the price on books to compete for market share at the expense of customer-perceived-quality and, in the end, sanity. If we tell the customer a book is £3, then its perceived value will be the same as £3 worth of overpriced cinema pick-and-mix. All that brilliance, blood, sweat, tears viewed the same as a pile of chocolate mice. That is what we have taken our industry to.

We need to get the price of the book back up (as a starter, simple maths suggests that at twice the selling price you would have to sell half the amount to make the same revenue, and more profit). And with the e-book we have an opportunity. Offer the electronic version and then think harder about the hard copy: what can be added, how can it be enhanced, how is it bound – make it a thing of beauty. And of value.

It may well be that publishers will sell 100,000 of the e-book versions and 5,000 of the printed copy, and will make all their profit, and a very reasonable one, from the latter – sold by the boutique-type stores that care about their shops, their customers and what they stock. We may see much of the market move to e-book versions, but this is an opportunity to better utilise that smaller but more dedicated market that love the book and are prepared to pay for it. Don’t have them fumbling around for the £3 for a book they would have paid £10 for. Offer them a fantastic, unique edition for £15, which they will be happy to pay the extra for. Forget units and be brave enough to think of the dreaded word: profit.

Maybe in this self-inflicted teetotal month I have gone all utopian, but I think there is an opportunity here with the e-book. Embrace it and sell it, but also use it to get the beauty, value and pride back into the printed book.

Photo credit: Pedro Dias


Dave said...

Interesting post. And I have to agree about that there are people willing to pay for a hard copy that gives them something extra: for example, I have two copies of "On The Road"; the beaten up paperback that is several times read, and the exquisite, limited edition, hardback, 'original scroll' copy that Penguin released a few years ago that - as a book lover - I was powerless to resist.
I think you may have something here...

Francesca Nield said...

E-books are anathema to me, but so is being teetotal! What next, a pill instead of a good meal? Give me a 'proper' book, even if it is a cheap paperback, and a glass of wine: luxury!

Nick said...

Interesting. Take the music industry, for example, who are going through worse, and have done so for longer. They're now forsaking sales of the bog-standard album and are aiming to make their profit through luxury limited edition (though not that limited) versions of the same. While the artist themself is hiking up the price of gig tickets, where they aim to make their slice: live. Fans are prepared to pay sums far in excess of what they were used to paying. Tom's idea might just work.