“Special Sales” – is it worth being an author anymore?

When I started out as an author, many years ago, I knew where I stood. I got 10% of cover price for hardbacks and 7.5% for paperbacks. A book club deal was jam on top.

The Net Book Agreement meant all trade books were sold at cover price everywhere. The Net Book Agreement was designed to encourage and support culture and education, subsidised by best-selling, and profitable, entertainment titles.

The Net book Agreement was declared illegal in 1998 and the slavering dogs of capitalism were unleashed. You can read more about it in Kenilworth Books’ excellent article here.

The new idea was that more books could be sold if they were discounted. That was fine for supermarkets, who only stocked a few bestsellers and sold books as loss-leaders.

I remember my local bookshop buying copies of Harry Potter at Tesco’s because they were half the price they’d have had to pay the publisher! Even now, Philip Pullman’s new book is selling, well in advance of publication, at half price! And the publishers must be paying through the nose for the opportunity. Again see this other excellent article by Kenilworth Books about how they can’t buy in at the price amazon sells at.

The world is waiting with baited breath to pay full price for Pullman’s book on publication day… why are the publishers making Philip Pullman pay so that Amazon can get a lower price than anyone else? Why are the publishers not interested in a healthy profit?

The high discounts that were demanded, after the end of the Net Book Agreement, set a new norm for royalties – this time it was 10% and 7.5% of Net Receipts rather than cover price. So, if you weren’t one of the Supermarket’s chosen handful of titles, royalties were effectively halved. This was around the time I had to double my annual output and school visit schedule.

Around this time, publishers with long histories and famous names – and what were to become worldwide brands – were snapped up and agglomerated by vast international media organisations. Authors still dealt with editors, but the corporate structure behind them changed dramatically.

Then came The Works. They would buy up unsold, unwanted books and sell them in their shops, (making authors feel like failures when they saw their books piled high and sold off with bargain basement methods and prices.) However, they did a job, cleaning up publisher’s warehouse shelves to make room for new titles.

Then came The Book People. They seemed almost like a charitable foundation at first. They took huge orders of books and sold them in factories and doctor’s waiting rooms, to people who would not normally buy books. These were “Special Sales”. They paid a firm price and bought special editions, with different covers and ISBN numbers, and paid outright, up front. What was not to like? Jam on top, cashflow for publishers and subsidised print runs – of course that subsidy was not shared with the author.

In the background, Amazon was growing like topsy, getting bigger and more demanding of ever-higher discounts.

This is when the “Special Sales” and “High Discount” clauses crept into author’s contracts.

Not only did authors get their percentage from the lesser Price Received or even Net terms- which can mean anything, after the publisher has decided what to take out as their expenses – but authors were then asked to accept increasingly lower royalty percentages as higher and higher discounts were acceded to. Fine for the publisher as the author is taking the hit.

Now I’ve woken up and worked all this through in my head, iniquitous is the only word that describes what I feel about this slow, steady, scam. An image of the Wizard of Oz keeps popping into my head – “Don’t look at that man behind the curtain!” I feel duped.

I had one case where the paperback, which would normally have earned about 37 pence per copy if sold in a book shop, earned me 0.3 pence – yes, less than half a penny per book on an edition of twenty thousand books! I can make more than that self-publishing and selling 20 copies!

That’s okay if it’s all jam on top, but then along came the internet and the likes of The Works and The Book People started selling online – just like any other retailer – except their overheads were now almost negligible and they could easily put brick and mortar bookshops out of business, buying in at “Special Sales” prices.

The problem is that “Special Sales” are no longer “Special”.

Special Sales are now indistinguishable from normal trade editions. The Works even sell through Amazon – where recently they even claimed to be the authors of the books they sold! (Surely Amazon are a competitor? What is that all about?)

Have you ever wondered how you can buy a book for a penny on Amazon, before a book is even published?

This is a very topsy-turvey world we live in.

I’m soon to become the Chair of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group – CWIG – of The Society of Authors. We have been working incredibly hard, the last year or so, to uncover “Special Sales” and build a campaign to bring their unfairness to light. Children’s authors and illustrated book authors generally come off worst.

The Campaign was launched last Friday in the Bookseller Magazine.

The problem is that “Special Sales” have become the norm. Publishers now even have “Special Sales Departments”. Anyone working ion a special sales department has to have a skewed idea of the market. Volume and the deal are all they can think of. What seem to them like an incredible deal is a death knell to the author’s earnings. To me, they are the enemy within!

Where I think it has all gone wrong is that these giant, listed corporations have only one aim in life – to increase shareholder value – and they achieve that aim at the expense of their stakeholders.

Essentially, The Covenant between author and publisher is broken. Where once we were partners, authors are now more like Uber drivers. Publishers know that we will carry on writing whatever. They could never afford to employ us full-time, so we work for them, often for free.

Publishers are spread-bet venture capitalists. Once, they accepted this and shared some of their winnings with their authors, so everyone could make a living. Now, all the winnings are siphoned off to the all-important shareholders, through dividends or raised share value. The winnings aren’t really that important any more. Volume and share price are more important. It’s the game that matters. As long as volume and profits keep up, then the shares also go up.

So anyone who is interested in buying in volume, at a reduced price, is welcomed. Never mind that the volume and cheapness devalues the product, sorry, I mean books, in general –  it’s a constant downwards spiral to the bottom.

They can afford to do this because we, the authors take all the risk, paying for their inability to sell at an equitable discount, through ever-diminishing royalty rates.

Interestingly, agents don’t appear to see this is a problem and have been complicit, over the years, in allowing their authors to sign ever- worsening, increasingly incomprehensible contracts. They too work the spread bet, so a tiny bit of jam is all okay to them.

Authors have one chance to recoup the time, knowledge, effort and expense of writing their book.

We authors spend years and careers honing and developing our craft, we do all the marketing and social media – unpaid – though that is the supposed to be job of the publisher.

We are told that this is the Market. The Market rules and that is how it is – it can’t be changed. Of course that’s a load of rubbish! Any rules you like can be applied to the market, if there is a will. Refuse to give high discounts and choose higher profit instead. So what if discounters go out of business – they’ll just move on to another product.

Publishers are taking the golden goose to market and selling it for the first and lowest price offered.

You know something is wrong when authors are called up in the afternoon and told that the decision to make a special sales deal has to be done by teatime – a favourite discounter’s tactic. You can hear the panic in editor’s voices as they try to explain how brilliant it’s going to be.

The tail is wagging the dog. Publishers are so in thrall to volume, and those who demand excessive discount – yes, 80% and more! – they have forgotten what honest profit means.

Is it worth being an author? I frequently ask myself that and, quite honestly, the answer is no. I could not meet my everyday bills on book sales alone and I’m supposed to be a successful author.

Will I stop writing and illustrating? Of course not, it’s a vocation, but publishers know that, and they know they can rely on a steady stream of people who want to be published.

As for the “Special Sellers”… they have no idea what an author is or what they have to do with a book, nor do they care. To them, books are just another product – pile’em high and sell’em cheap. When the market’s bust, move onto something else – like, say, fidget spinners. Oh no! They’ve blown that one already!

Of course, these arguments and problems are similar to the problems faced by farmers and small producers everywhere. Maybe that’s a sign that things need to change? Corporate systems are only interested in volume, shareholder value and the race to the bottom – outcompeting all others in search of monopoly.

I believe books are a sacred part of our culture and that those who work tirelessly to create them, and the ideas upon which culture and society is built, should receive fair remuneration – not fortunes, just fair remuneration from those we still think of as our partners. When will we ever learn?

8 thoughts on ““Special Sales” – is it worth being an author anymore?

  1. Liz Brownlee

    Hear, hear! What’s more, in poetry at least, we have to agree to allowing the product to be distributed as CDs and other digital media which may not even have been invented yet…

  2. Shoo Rayner Post author

    Which means it can never theoretically go out of print so you can get your rights back. Yep, we all look at the contracts and look at the trade royalties and sign away everything else that they have no intention of ever exploiting unless, maybe just… maybe one day!

  3. Candy Gourlay

    Thanks for this, Shoo. It really is sobering, as Sia commented. I hope the CWIG campaign makes more publishers aware that the geese who are laying their golden eggs need a fairer share of the feed.

  4. Shoo Rayner Post author

    Yes, I’ve never been a socialist, but I’m coming to think that capitalism – especially corporatism – needs a reset. Now the corporations hold the strings of power, I don’t suppose that’s ever going to happen!

  5. Sally Grindley

    I’ve only just caught up with this article, Shoo, but well done for voicing so admirably what’s going on in the book industry and how perilous is the position of authors and illustrators. I’ve been aware of many of the negative changes that have taken place since the death of the Net Book Agreement – especially the huge decrease in my royalties now that a percentage of net receipts is the norm! – but hadn’t grasped quite how far reaching those negative changes are and how unlikely there is to be a swing back to a fairer share of the pie for authors and illustrators any time soon. How depressing for us all.

  6. Shoo Rayner Post author

    Hi Sally, Yes, it’s pretty depressing, but I don’t think things will change much soon. I think we have to find different ways of making income – it must be possible somehow!

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