Books are not eggs

Our rich and varied literary life is under threat from proposals for a new pricing structure on what we read

Philip Pullman
Thursday March 4, 2004
The Guardian

Every week we go to the supermarket and buy a dozen eggs. We expect them to taste and look pretty well the same as last week's lot. And we know that neither the hen who laid them, nor the farmer who collected them, had anything to do with deciding what price we should pay at the checkout, because that's the job of the retailer; and we know that the price will have been worked out by balancing such things as the deal the farmer had to accept, the price the customer is likely to put up with, the wages of the shelf-stackers, and so on. Buying eggs is a transaction that takes place so often that we can tell at once if the price this week is twice what it was last week, or how much less the supermarket charges than the corner shop.

But books work differently - though a suggestion being floated by some retailers and publishers would erase the difference, and make things very much more difficult for authors, and very much worse, in the long run, for the reading public.

The idea is that instead of being published with a suggested price, books should be published like eggs, as it were, so that the retailer alone would decide what to charge. But books are not like eggs. Every time we buy eggs, we are looking for the same thing we had last time; but every time we buy a book, we're looking for something different. So when it comes to looking at the cost, we have nothing to go by, at the moment, except the recommended retail price. A new literary biography, in hardback, will have a suggested price of 25 or so; a best-selling paperback will have an RRP of 7.99 or thereabouts. If the bookshop wants to discount them, we can easily tell the value of the discount by comparing it with the publisher's suggested price.

But if there were no RRP, how could we tell? We wouldn't even know if the bookseller was charging more, rather than less. We don't buy the same book 50 times a year; there is nothing to compare it with except itself. That would be an inconvenience. What follows from it would be a disaster.

At the moment, an author's income depends on royalties, which are calculated as a percentage of the recommended retail price - say 8% on average. The royalty on a book with an RRP of 15 would be roughly 1.20, whether or not the bookseller decides to sell it for three pounds less. This system has worked reasonably well for many years, though not many writers make much money; a recent survey by the Society of Authors found that three-quarters of the members made less than 20,000 a year. The royalty system has a sort of clarity and fairness about it.

But if there wasn't an RRP anymore, royalties would have to be calculated on some other basis, and the most likely one is a percentage of net receipts, or the money that the publisher actually gets from the bookseller. In order to produce a roughly equivalent income, authors will have to receive something like 25% - and they are not in the least likely to get it.

Those who are lucky enough to feature regularly in the best-seller lists won't suffer too much: their agents will be able to demand a large advance. It's those in the middle of the range who are likely to do worst, and this is where the real damage will be done.

Consider two novelists. One is young, brilliant, original, but her talent is wild and erratic. A few years ago a publisher would have found it worth taking on her first book, confident that with the help of editing, experience, and exposure in the shops, her obvious gifts will find and develop an audience. The other author is in his 60s, and has published a stream of detective stories for many years without ever reaching the best-seller lists. His work is popular with readers: he knows that because of the public lending right figures, which show borrowing from libraries. But he can't command large advances, although he does make a steady, if modest, living.

Both of these writers are necessary to the rich and varied literary life we are lucky enough to enjoy now. Neither of them will survive under the proposed regime. Their books are exactly the sort that will have to be priced out of reach of the general reader so that the latest celebrity, ghost-written best-seller can dominate the marketplace.

As a result, each of these two authors will find it harder and harder to get published at all; if they are, the return for their labour will be minuscule; and both apprenticeship at one end of a career, and a decent enjoyment of a lifetime's work at the other, will be wiped out.

And it isn't even as if the booksellers set sensible prices anyway. Of all the books in the world that was guaranteed to sell a million copies at the full recommended retail price, and make a fortune for everyone involved, the latest Harry Potter was that book. And what did the big booksellers do? They all discounted it to the point where it wouldn't surprise me to learn that many of them actually lost money on it.

Those who are arguing for the abolition of the RRP do so because they expect to benefit from it. No doubt they will, in the short term. But they're forgetting the nature of the thing they sell. A hen is in business as soon as she lays her first egg; authorship is a much more complicated, precarious and long-term affair. The book trade needs to nurture those who produce the books, because without us, the whole edifice would collapse.

Philip Pullman is an author and former chairman of the Society of Authors.