It’s been twenty years since several of the major publishers withdrew from the Net Book Agreement and I believe it’s time to reintroduce it in a new form.
Established in 1900 by the significant publishers of the day, where it was approved that any bookseller who sold a book less than the agreed price would no longer be shipped stock by the publisher in question. It glued the industry together for nearly a century, ensuring that the apprentice printer to the bestselling author all received a fair wage for their dedication and toil.
Since the collapse of the NBA, more than 500 independent bookshops have closed (my own career was significantly boosted by Index Books in Brixton market selling hundreds of copies of my first two novels, Brixton Rock & East of Acre Lane) brands including Ottakars, Books ETC and Borders have disappeared from the High Street. Author advances have dropped alarmingly, sales and marketing personnel have too much sway at acquisition meetings and now publishers expect new recruits to the industry to serve long internships. Who can afford to work for nothing in central London where most of the major publishers are located?
The all-too powerful supermarkets now demand excessive discounts on the books they do decide to sell and publishers send their catalogues to the buyers at Waterstones, the only High Street bookstore left standing, and pray for clemency. Of course it’s even worse for independent presses who cannot sustain the markdowns demanded of them by the booksellers. Room at the Inn is becoming very scarce for them. Profit margins are becoming thinner by the week and there is an over-reliance on event publications like Go Set A Watchman – in my local Waterstones I could barely move without nudging a copy off a table. Unless you are fortunate enough to be nominated for the Booker Prize, new authors struggle to even breathe their titles.
How did it ever come to this?
We have an excellent product. Television, films, theatre, the gaming industry and others all knock on our door for source material. So I despair when I see novels available to download for less cost than a Mars Bar and a packet of crisps. I wonder what percentage royalty the author earns when I see a paperback in my local supermarket on offer for £1.99. We really need to trust in our product and realise its true value.
I’m a bit of a film buff so whenever I get the opportunity I attend a screening at the BFI on the Southbank. Farewell To Arms, a 1953 film starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, was featured in August. Do you think the BFI would charge the general public just 99p? No. The cheapest ticket was £8.35. They know the value of their product.
A price of a book should cater for the author, the editor, the jacket designer, the proof-reader and even the graduate who is obliged to work for free. Hey! Even the bookseller should make a fair profit but this can only be achieved if the industry sits down and negotiates a way forward where everyone can eat cookies off the plate rather than so many having to make do with crumbs.
By Alex Wheatle
Born in London of Jamaican parents, Alex’s first book, Brixton Rock(1999), tells the story of a 16-year old boy of mixed race, in 1980s Brixton. Brixton Rock was adapted for the stage and performed at the Young Vic in 2010. Its sequel, Brenton Brown, was published in 2011.
His second novel, East of Acre Lane (2001), has a similar setting, and won a London Arts Board New Writers Award. A prequel, Island Songs, set in Jamaica, was published in 2005, and a sequel, Dirty South, in 2008.
Other novels include In The Seven Sisters (2002), in which the scene moves to Surrey in 1976, where four boys escape from an abusive life in a children’s home; and Checkers (2003), written with Mark Parham, was published in 2003.
In 2010, he wrote the one-man autobiographical performance, Uprising.
Alex Wheatle lives in London. He was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2008.
He can be found on Twitter @.