Ethical reading, ethical publishing

by Tom Chivers

A few weeks ago I attended a conference called The Space Between Us, which was about the intersection between literature and technology. The exceptionally interesting  James Bridle gave the keynote. I was especially curious, though, to hear Sophie Rochester of The Literary Platform speak about ‘Ethical reading’. Her provocation, so to speak, was that the publishing industry – buffeted by technological change, price wars, and myriad Intellectual Property issues – might learn something from the Fair Trade movement. She suggested there might be an ethical way to buy books; that by paying a little more, book buyers can guarantee a decent return to both the author and the publisher, and by doing so help to sustain the publishing ‘ecosystem’. (You can read Sophie’s and Ewan Morrison’s takes here.)

I have been pondering whether to write about this issue of ethical reading. I run a small, independent publishing company, with about 25 titles currently in print. Mostly poetry. A niche within a niche. I am also a “commercial” publisher: I receive no funding from the Arts Council or anyone else, but must make a profit on every book I sell. This is obviously difficult, especially when I am in direct competition (both for readers and authors) with subsidised presses.

Now, I am pretty well-off compared to, say, a factory worker in China or coffee bean picker in Colombia – so I’m hesitant to make the direct leap to the Fair Trade movement. I’m also in charge of my own business and have no employees (though I do have responsibilities towards my twenty or so authors). I am also very uncomfortable with making any kind of moral or ethical call to my readers or potential readers. I would like people to buy my books because they want to read great literature, not because they feel obliged to contribute towards my electricity bill. Neither my company nor my authors are charity cases.

But operating as an unsubsidised small press is becoming increasingly untenable in a world in which Amazon achieves such huge discounts and is able to undercut most other retailers, thereby reducing publishers’ margins to negligible amounts. Where is the fairness in that? How does a small press continue to create space for risky literature? I think the case can now be made, directly to readers. This is not about hectoring, but educating book buyers so that they can make an informed choice.

So let’s talk figures

Say I publish a book and decide on a retail price (RRP) of £10, where it costs £3 to print. The author receives a royalty of 10% of the book’s net price – that’s what I receive for selling each copy, after discounts to retailers and/or wholesalers. If I sell directly into a bookshop, the bookshop will normally pay 65% of the RRP, so in this case £6.50. The author would then receive 65p, and once printing costs are taken into account, my profit would be £2.85.

If a bookshop orders through my wholesaler (the marvellous Central Books) a further cut will be taken of around 25%. This reduces the author’s royalty to about 50p and my profit to£2 or so. Not great, but still in profit.

Amazon, however, undercut everyone else by offering huge discounts, and those discounts have to be paid for – by the publisher. My latest book, an anthology called Adventures in Form, is currently being sold for £6.93 on Amazon, despite retailing at £9.99. You can imagine how little I make from each sale.

Now a couple of other things.

1. These figures do not include postage and packing, which normally is paid by the publisher.

2. Booksellers usually buy from wholesalers on a sale-or-return basis, which effectively means they can take copies of your book, sling ‘em on shelves, and if they don’t sell, return them to your wholesaler and get their money back.

3. The ‘profit’ I receive for each book must cover my time commissioning, editing, typesetting, proofing, liaising with printers and designers, design itself, marketing, press, everything.

So what is the ethical alternative to Amazon?

Well, for a small press like mine, you could – as many do – order through my website (I use Paypal, which is a very effective and widely-used online shopping tool). This is the best way to support the press, because the entire cover price comes to me. If this seems like a lot of profit, you’re right – because sales through my website are effectively subsidising sales through Amazon. But buying through my website comes with other benefits. It’s the quickest option, as I tend to do three or four post runs every week. And your book won’t have been slung around a giant warehouse, or gathering dust on a shelf. And it won’t get lost. It might even come with a personalised note of thanks from me. Most importantly I will pay the highest royalty to the author (£1 on a £10 book).

Even better, attend one of our numerous events and pick up a book there.

One way in which some publishers get round the problem of discounting is to increase the RRP of their books accordingly. So, to continue with my example, I would increase the £10 book to £13, thus achieving more favourable margins when selling to Amazon. This is something I have considered. Discounts could be offered on my own website too, so that direct buyers are not unfairly discriminated against. But I am loathe to do this. It feels somehow like a dishonest practice. It would also hurt trade sales (to bookshops). Like it or not, the RRP still says something about a book, and the value you put on it. It helps to generate and shape a possible readership. This is one of the ways Amazon has changed the game, and raising my RRPs may be the only option if I want to sustain my business in the long-term.

I want to end by stressing that this is not a desperate plea, but an articulation of some concerns I have. By making transparent some of my publishing methods, I hope that informed readers might think twice before going to Amazon when looking to purchase a book which could otherwise be acquired through a more direct route. But I hold no grudge against those who do not. Amazon remains incredibly convenient and reliable, and I continue to use them myself (though infrequently). Mainly, I just want to produce and market great books that people want to read – and to sell them through any and all avenues.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or have spotted any factual errors. Just leave a comment underneath.

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