High discounts

Everyone loves a bargain, and readers are no exception. But where does the author fit into the discounting equation? Does a good deal for the reader have to mean a bad deal for the author?

But for the people who can afford £3 on a daily latte or magazine, or who happily spend £6 for a cinema ticket, should books be just £1?

James Mayhew - Fair trade for authors

So-called “Special Sales”, where a publisher chooses to sell a large number of copies at huge discount (over 90% is not unheard of), form an increasingly large part of the book-selling market. Generally the purchaser pays a very low price per copy for a large quantity of copies, but it pays up-front and ‘firm’ for all those copies. Such deals could come under a number of clauses in the publishing contract, for instance ‘book club and similar’, ‘co-edition’, ‘special’, ‘premium’, ‘mail order’, ‘own brand’, ‘sales at discounts of 80% or more’, ‘supermarket’, and/or ‘non-traditional retail outlets’.

Historically, these deals used to be either for books towards the end of their life, books that were selling poorly, to give them a boost, or for a special edition of a book, with a different jacket and special market. But increasingly we are seeing this for successful “frontlist” books which may find themselves sold online next to their full-price identical listings. For example Amazon is altering the way it sells books. Until now, if you selected the ‘buy’ button, this would lead to the original sale of a book stocked by Amazon – i.e. a copy on which Amazon pays the publisher (who in turn pays the author) a royalty. Amazon has said that in future the ‘buy’ button could link to a second-hand copy (so long as it is pristine) being supplied via a second-hand seller.

Because Special Sales income for authors is based on the money received by the publisher, NOT the cover price, authors earn pitifully little (sometimes literally nothing) from such sales. Additionally, these sales are not recorded by Nielsen Bookscan and so don’t appear in official public sales figures. This can damage an author’s careers as publishers will typically look at previous sales figures when deciding whether to commission another book. It may also damage an author’s “brand” if they are perceived as “bargain book” authors.

These huge discounts at high volume can also be damaging for high street bookshops, wholesalers and distributors which cannot command such high discounts. And that in turn might well render future publications uneconomic, as well as killing off the viability of keeping backlist in print.

We recognize that sometimes such a sale might have a good reason, for example the guarantee of such a bulk deal/bulk payment from the outset can be make or break in the budget for a book altogether. But, crucially, authors and agents should be part of that decision-making. For the sake of individuals and the publishing and bookselling industries as a whole, publishers should:

  • When negotiating the contract be required to flag up to the author which royalty clauses it anticipates affecting any significant quantity of sales in the first couple of years to give the author a chance to negotiate appropriate royalties.
  • Always explain to an author the reasons why it wants to do such a deal, the likely receipts for the publisher and author and the likely effect on traditional sales.
  • Give the author a right of approval over any bulk sales at a reduced price or cheap editions for at least the first year after publication.
  • At the least, have a good-faith consultation with the author on any high-discount bulk deals thereafter.
  • Publishers should also take steps to ensure that such books are only sold in the channels for which they are intended and do not “leak” back to compete with full-price sales, particularly on Amazon.

What are we doing?

  • In line with our CREATOR campaign for fairer contracts we want to enlighten publishers to act fairly and respectfully, bringing authors into the decision-making process. We will be seeking some changes in the PA Code of Practice and standard contracts: some clauses which we would like to see in contracts and some that we would like to eliminate. Crucially, we are asking publishers to include a “consultation and approval” clause. We will be holding meetings with the main publishers.
  • We will ask publishers to take steps to ensure such sales do not leak into traditional markets.
  • We will help authors understand the issues so that they can stand up for themselves, with the help of their agents where relevant.
  • We aim to educate the public so that they can make fully informed judgments when they buy books.
  • We want Special Sales to be recorded as sales through Nielsen Bookscan.

If we can do all this, there will be benefit not only to authors but to the industry as a whole, raising the perceived value of books. It is simply fair that authors should not be suffer potentially catastrophic loss of income without any voice in the matter.

Find out more

What can you do?

  • This campaign is still in planning stages but please do keep an eye out for announcements about the clauses which we are going to suggest should appear in all contracts. Then you can inform your agent, if you have one, or highlight the issues when you negotiate contracts. Remember that the Society will vet your contract for you.
  • Talk about the issues when you have the opportunity. Do your friends realise that when they buy a book at high discount the author gets less money? And that most authors are very low-earners?
  • Ask your publisher to discuss Special Sales with you, even if your current contract allows them. Tell your publisher how this affects you, how your income relies not on volume (number of books sold) but on the price they are sold at.

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