• The price of words

    The Frankfurt Book Fair is kicking off again today, with pre-fair talks before the show itself opens tomorrow morning. This year, as well as talking about the strength of Brazil as a book market amongst other things, they seem to be talking about the price of books. This is an area which has become terribly confused over the last few years. First, the Net Book Agreement was toppled, which meant that publishers were no longer able to set the retail price at which books were sold, and so the more aggressive retailers such as the supermarkets began to use books as consumer price-plays: bestselling books like Harry Potter were savagely discounted as a way of encouraging consumers into the store in the hope that they would then linger and buy some loo rolls. Then e-books arrived, and Amazon’s Kindle spawned a wild rush of new digital marketing activity, which mostly seemed to revolve around either free e-books or very low-price e-books. I lost count of the number of publishers who used to say, with a sly and knowing wink, that such-and-such a book had got to the top of the e-book charts by the incredibly clever marketing tactic of offering it for free. “Then you lure in the reader, you see, and they will then pay for the next one.” Hmm. I’m not aware of that particular marketing ploy ever working, but I could be wrong. The overall result of this and most other areas of book marketing over the last 15 years seems to have been to reinforce in the consumer’s mind that books should be cheap, or possibly free. Which brings us to this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, where they appear to be talking once more about the price of books, and whether the 99p e-book can possibly be sustained, and whether the market will tolerate increasing the price. Good grief. But at least they are talking about it, I suppose. The answer remains, to write words which are brilliant and important, and to make those words available to people who might wish to read them in such a way that the writer may sustain a living. Everything else is like Aristotle Onassis used to say: the rules are, there are no rules. The publishing industry hasn’t been very good at creating and/or sustaining rules about the marketing and distribution of words, so I think it may well be time that everyone else had a bash at it instead.