Last Christmas was a discounting bloodbath on the high street, when the big chains traded margin for share. Average selling prices tumbled to near or below 50% off on key titles, and everyone was left wondering how much further it could go.
Although it seems almost indecent to think of next Christmas so soon after Easter, publishers are already formulating strategies to sidestep last year's margin massacre.
Their solution is frighteningly simple: charge more for the books in the first place. So the day of the £30 hardback is almost with us, enabling retailers to offer a 66% discount and still sell the book for £10.
Perhaps a really far-sighted publisher will conceive a £40 hardback, offering retailers the tantalising prospect of a 75% discount. But why stop at £40? We are entering, as one senior retailer puts it, Cloud-cuckoo-land.
Unless due caution is excercised the book trade risks squandering 500 years of intellectual clout to become the carpet or sofa trade of the 21st century, where no one but a mug pays full price. Inflating the prices of books just to pay for a bigger discount is the logical end-result of a series of erroneous decisions that have left the book trade over-reliant on price as a marketing tool.
An unfortunate side-effect of turbo-charging cover prices is that it creates a market that discriminates against independent retailers in favour of supermarkets. High cover prices enable supermarkets to pose, bizarrely as it may seem, as the good guys, offering customers vast discounts.
Another consequence of the new focus on prices is that it re-ignites the debate about whether books should have cover prices printed on them. Retailers would broadly like to do away with cover prices so that they can charge what they like, or more accurately what the market can bear. Publishers like to retain cover prices because it gives them some, however vestigial, control over the price. They would also have to change all their publishing systems if cover prices went, and draw up new royalty contracts with authors.
No retailer currently feels strongly enough about the issue to refuse to sell books with cover prices on, but if the discrepancy between the nominal price and the actual price becomes a patent absurdity there will come a point when everyone comes to their senses.
That moment is still a little way off, but what we need now is more subtlety around pricing. So the consumer should be the point at which pricing begins, not the size of book, or dusty, historical precedent. It should be a consumer-led decision, not a producer-led one.
From The Bookseller