“… 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.”
This is an extract from a really interesting blog post, posted today by Tom Chivers, who runs poetry publising company, Penned in the Margins. There isn’t currently a lot of crossover between the worlds of literature and social enterprise in the UK, although I’m involved with both – including being a non-executive director of Inpress, a sales and marketing agency for independent publishers.
If you think that publishing poetry (and other literary activity) is inherently social useful, you may believe the poetry publishers are social entrepreneurs but, either way, most literature entrepreneurs are in a similar position to social entrepreneurs in that their primary aim is to do something rather than to make a profit and take it out of the business. That’s not a moral argument about profit – plenty of these are going on elsewhere – but a statement about intentions. If you publish poetry, you do so because you want poetry that you like to published and read, not because you want to become rich.
As Tom points out, it’s not an easy time to be a small publisher publishing writing that only appeals to relativey small audience. At least, it’s not an easy time to be a small publisher who wants to produce a high quality product (it’s now very cheap and easy to make your unedited writing available on the internet).
There was never lots of money in poetry publishing but until 1997 the net book agreement – which enabled publishers to set the prices that bookshops would sell books at – protected publishers (and, to some extent, bookshops) from the effects of aggressive price discounting. Now booksellers can sell books at whatever price they want to and, with the decline of physical bookshops, ‘booksellers’ mostly means online-retailer Amazon.
As Tom’s blog makes clear, if Amazon sell his £10 book at a discounted price of £6.93 then, once print, distribution and author’s fees are accounted for, he’s barely breaking even on the sale. If asked, a spokesperson from Amazon might point out that publishers have the option to either not to sell books through Amazon at all or to increase the reccomend price to account for Amazon’s discount. The drawbacks to the former option are obvious but there are also problems with the latter as Tom explains:
“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.”
While Tom rightly points out that the social impact of the decision on where you buy a poetry book is unlikely to be as significant as the social impact of buying Fairtrade produce (or not), similar questions come into play in both cases. For the consumer, there’s the question ‘why am I buying this product?’ – is it just because I want the thing I’m buying or am I also buying the wider outcomes generated as result of buying it?
For the poetry publisher or the social entrepreneur, there’s the question of what extent it’s (a) right and (b) practical to hope that customers will care enough about the wider consequences of their purchasing decisions to buy a different product or, as Tom’s suggesting here, to buy the same product from a different place.
Clearly this not a new debate in the world of social enterprise. There is a wide spectrum of opinion within the movement on the extent to which consumers can be expect or convinced to incorporate social values into their buying habits. Can positive social outcomes be a reason for people to buy products or services that are a bit worse and/or a bit more expensive? Or do socially enterprising products need to be as good and as cheap as any other products but with social benefit as their unique selling point?
When it comes to buying poetry books, there’s room for a bit of self-interest in the discussion. Many of the people who want to read poetry books are people who themselves write poetry. If they buy books in a way that makes publishers more likely to keep going, they’re ultimately more likely to be able to get their own books published.
But self-interested or otherwise, Tom Chivers is asking potential readers of his company’s poetry books to buy more than a book – he wants them to buy into the idea of what will happen as a result of buying the book. The hope is that people who want to read a poetry book also care enough about other poetry books being published to change their behaviour.
It is, as Tom says, an attempt to encourage people to make an informed choice. Given their interest in thinking deeply about the wider meanings of ideas and events, poets and poetry readers should be an ideal (if relatively small) market for this kind of choice. But I’m not sure if that means this plan will work.