Discounts, Sugar, and "nowhere on the form for it"

I noticed some things in today's Morning Briefing from the Bookseller, and I thought I'd point them up. 

They probably qualify as an addendum to the "Harkaway Club" post I put up the other day, but on sober reflection I've decided that joke was really, really weak and I'm a bit embarrassed about it. So anyway...

The first thing was this piece about supermarkets and book sales. It's hardly rocket science to say that while low-priced digital editions potentially diminish the perceived value of paper books, the deep discounting of books in supermarkets does much, much more in that direction. While we may try to set ebook prices at a reasonable level, it's a pointless exercise if paper books are sold so cheaply that the perception of value is eroded anyway.

The second thing was Alan Sugar's warning to our industry: don't fight digital. It's a common sense statement from a businessman who's been around the block, but it's hardly a detailed analysis. I mention it because I do have concerns about a (perfectly understandable but ultimately untenable) gut-level resistance to digital in publishing, and every little helps.

In closing: a word about accounting...

Comedians have been having fun with "the computer won't accept that" or "there's nowhere on the form for it, sir" for quite a while now, but we tend to think of it as a civil service issue. I was a bit surprised, kicking around the LBF, to find people saying that they'd heard a variation on the theme as a reason why various digital innovation strategies weren't possible. "The accounts department won't let us do it that way."

I recognise that large companies need to have norms so that they can see what they're spending money on and what's bringing it in. Things need to be commensurable, which means a degree of standardisation is important. That said, it seems to me likely that we're entering a period of experimental deals and non-standard arrangements. We must be: no one yet knows what a good digital deal looks like or what market share ebooks will have. The SoA thinks writers should be asking for a 50% ebook royalty, maybe even as much as 75%. Publishers think an absolute maximum of 25% is in order. A large number of commentators seem to be saying that above all else, writers must have a clause in a contract which allows for re-negotiation of ebook rights when (if) market realities change.

In this sort of climate, where innovation is vital (or epidemic, depending on your feelings about it) you can't have a situation where "accounts won't let us" is a constant refrain. Publishers surely have to be able to offer unusual arrangements - escalators, scaled royalties, and so on - and authors will want to be open to them. We may need some innovations in the way we handle accounting.

For sure, having nowhere on the form for new ways of making deals is going to be a problem.


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