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'The real losers would be authors'

15 March 2004

The issue of removing prices from books has suddenly forced its way into the book trade headlines in the UK, amid fears that a move may suddenly be made in this direction because it suits big players such as the supermarkets and book chains.

The case for removing prices is simple - it would free up retailers to have greater control over the books, to price them as they wish. This would seem likely to lead to even greater discounts on bestsellers and backlist prices rising. This is perhaps not the best idea when price competition on bestselling titles is already so acute and backlist is struggling against shrinking sales.

Borders in the UK support removing prices and so do Blackwell’s. Ottakars and Waterstone’s appear to be against the idea, and W H Smith’s have not yet made up their minds. All the chains must be aware of the considerable extra costs involved in pricing books themselves.

It looks as if the real losers would be authors. It is widely presumed that removing prices would lead to a ‘dealer price’ outcome, similar to that in the music industry. Royalties would be paid on the basis of price received (i.e. what the booksellers paid the publishers) rather than published price - and there’s little expectation that most authors would get a sufficient uplift in their percentage to compensate for it being a larger percentage of a smaller amount. Margins are already under such pressure that many authors fear they would sacrifice even more of their percentage of the overall take.

Derek Johns, President of the Association of Authors Agents, said in a letter to the Bookseller that the Association would: ‘resist any move toward the abolition of printed prices from books. In our view the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1995 did little to benefit authors, having the effect of driving down prices without any compensating increase in the overall volume of the market, and we feel that the abolition of printed prices can only risk a further diminishing of authors’ earnings.’

The obvious question no-one seems to be asking is whether the lack of a printed price would stimulate people to buy books. If not, could it just mean that book-buyers would no longer know what the ‘right price’ was, and whether the price in any particular shop was a bargain or not?