With 21 shopping days to go until Christmas, and recent events having thrown an already difficult-to-call end-of-year into uncertainty and chaos, publishers are beginning to come to terms with the realisation that one long-cherished piece of trade wisdom looks certain to bite the dust. 'Anyone who thinks that books are recession-proof is living in cloud-cuckoo-land', was how one senior figure put it to BookBrunch this week. True, just as retailers experienced an uplift this weekend following the clearing of November pay-cheques, so the final weekend and the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Christmas will likely see a similar lift - although James Daunt told BookBrunch that if the wet weather gave way to dry and bright that in itself will improve the situation.
But anecdotal evidence from conversations with friends and colleagues strongly suggests that Christmas '08 will not be one of conspicuous consumption - that however much the Prime Minister and his Chancellor hope Britons will spend and help kick-start the economy, most people are now sufficiently worried about job security and mortgage payments, not to mention their depleted savings, to proceed with utmost caution. Books should benefit, but they will be competing with CDs and DVDs.
Booksellers are responding in the only way they know how. The supermarket shelves may be emptying of half-price bestsellers on account of the Woolworths/EUK crisis, but bookseller advertising, in newspapers and on TV, proclaim discounts of 50% and even 75%. Online, Jamie's Ministry of Food (MJ) can be bought for £9.99 - £15.01 less than its RRP, or 60% off. Dear Fatty (Century) by Dawn French, at £7.97, is £11.02 below its RRP, or 58% off. Julie Walters' memoir, That's Another Story (Weidenfeld), is, at £9.49, merely half price. And inevitably, the new J K Rowling, The Tales of Beedle the Bard (Bloomsbury), is on offer at half price - £3.50. Over the last couple of years, when the economy was 'healthy', the final shopping weekends saw flash deep-discounting, some of which angered publishers. A reprise seems certain this year, and it's likely that publishers, who are experiencing slower and lower rates of reordering than is normal at this time of year, might be persuaded to pitch in with additional support - though, on the face of it, their pips squeaked long ago.
'It's still possible to sell 400,000 to 500,000 copies of a big celebrity title - but only if it's at half-price', was how one sales director put it this week, noting the widening fault-line in the trade. That is independent booksellers, who can't compete on such discounts, showcasing an entirely different range of titles, as the NBS Independent Retail Top 20 demonstrates, with Barak Obama still riding high, along with Man Booker-winner Aravind Adiga, Orange Prize-winner Rose Tremain, plus Alan Bennett's Uncommon Reader and Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. Michael Parkinson is one celebrity who is doing well with independents, while Jeremy Clarkson and Jamie Oliver are languishing in the lower reaches of the chart.
The pass having long ago been sold, it is difficult to see - short of a reintroduction of some form of retail price maintenance, which is surely out of the question - how commonsense can return to book pricing. Certainly not while both publishers and retailers remain fixated on 'market share'. In the meantime, publishers will be in less of a rush to pack their lists with also-rans, and all those agents and lawyers looking for seven-figure deals for this or that celebrity may find themselves shown the door. And that, many would agree, would be no bad thing. Besides, it will help publishers reduce their carbon footprint.