Now, from the start, I have to own up to two vested interests.
First, I am a plain chocolate, not a milk chocolate person. Give me Bournville over Dairy Milk anyday – or, preferably, Co-op Fairtrade dark chocolate. Yummy.
The other thing is that I am a Co-founder and Director of www.Lovereading.co.uk.
So I know about the Book Trade. And I know the book trade is in a bad way. Waterstone’s are the only book chain on the High Street, until they unite with HMVs. I don’t count WH Smith, other than their airport stores, which aren’t on High Streets. By definition, they are at ground level. Boom, boom.
And I know about the effect of the end of the Net Book Agreement in 1995, which has enabled major multiples to sell bestselling books at substantial discounts – sometimes, ridiculously, such as with the last Harry Potter, at a loss.
And I know this has polarised the book market between the bestsellers and the rest, which is why literary giants like Katie Price and Gordon Ramsay dominate the charts.
And I know that virtually every books that has ever been published is available on the internet – which is fine if you know what you want to buy, but not great if you would like some help and guidance on which book you might enjoy reading next (hence www.Lovereading.co.uk).
And I know that many of the friendly, local Independent bookstores – those owned by human beings who love books and know books and know you and know which books you might like to read – have struggled to survive. Or haven’t.
And I know all this makes it really difficult for new authors books to break through.
Because of technology, it is easier than ever to get your book printed and published – you can do it yourself through print-on-demand (POD). But, paradoxically, it has become harder than ever to enable readers to discover it. You can stick it online, but you almost certainly won’t find a bricks and mortar bookstore to stock it.
Here are two Insights that are unique to the book market and very important.
Unlike any other market I have worked in, in the book market it is the new books that are discounted. Thanks to the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, you can buy all the latest bestsellers at half-price (or less). If you want to buy a book that was published some time ago, although it is new to you, it either won’t be available at all (in a major multiple) or you will have to find it at the back of Waterstone’s racked, illogically, in alphabetical order by name of author, at the back of the store – or they will order it for you. And the ‘old’ book will be available at full price.
In this case, you might as well go home or back to the office and buy it online at a discount – but still not as great a discount as the new books on offer.
This is mad but true. Would a supermarket sell you fresh lettuce at a discount and charge more for last week’s stock? Of course not. It would be commercial suicide. But this is what happens in the Book Trade.
The other Insight is that, in books, you don’t know what you are buying. The pages you are paying to read, that you hope will fire your imagination, entrance you with someone else’s thoughts and take you into another world will, by definition, be new.
Other products like, say, Marmite or Corn Flakes, provide guaranteed taste and texture. You know what you are going to get. I once sat on a pavement in Saigon with an executive from Heineken, pouring bottle after bottle of past-sell-by-date beer into the gutter. Such was his commitment into the consistency of taste and integrity of his product that he had even bought and paid retail price for this redundant stock.
So, with a book, you need guidance and reassurance, before you start reading it. Before you buy it, you want to know that it is going to be good.
This was the dynamic behind the amazing success of the Richard & Judy Book Club. Why them? No idea. But it shows how desperate readers are for guidance.
Another way of reassuring readers that a book is worth reading is if it has been nominated for, or won, a book award. Because people do read. Millions of them. They just want the comfort of knowing they will enjoy the book they have chosen.
So I approve of Book Awards. And, as I live and work within the dynamics of a market economy, I understand that Book Awards need sponsorship.
One such Book Award is sponsored by Galaxy chocolate. ‘As sponsor of the Awards, Galaxy continues to unite reading and chocolate as the perfect match for women everywhere to enjoy their ultimate me time moment’, gushed ‘Galaxy Ambassador’ Claudia Winkleman at the Awards Ceremony. Why just ‘women’? Why ‘ambassador’?
Why? Sponsorship is one thing, but now things get really sticky.
Personally speaking, I find the connection between chocolate and books contrived, and rather tasteless, but if Galaxy advertising claims ‘melting into a good book with some silky smooth Galaxy chocolate is a wonderful indulgence’, what do I know?
What I really object to is the next line of the advertising and the next stage of the process, the sales promotion – ‘Galaxy are giving away a million books’.
Yes, you read that correctly – giving away and a million. Not ‘up to a million’. Not even ‘over a million’. A clearly and specifically defined statement of fact. A promise. Galaxy are giving away, FREE, not a hundred, not a thousand, not a hundred thousand but a MILLION books. Who on earth conceived and approved this counter-effective and, I hope, sales-counter-reductive idea?
What effect is it going to have on the struggling Book Trade?
What threat will it be to the endangered Independent Bookstores in lost sales?
How many of these books would otherwise have been bought by readers?
And, if not these books, what other books might these readers have chosen?
Or will these books be given away as cheap Christmas presents?
Or be found, for years to come, un-read in charity shops up and down the country?
What ‘value’ is this going to add to the perception of books in general?
I am afraid I cannot answer these questions, which is why I am asking them, but I have diligently undertaken some market research and bought four bars of Galaxy. Even though I can’t stand the stuff, I melted into action.
What you do is go to their website and enter an ‘indulgent code’ provided by Galaxy. My ‘indulgent codes were ‘poetry’, ‘dream’, ‘virtue’ and ‘subtle’. You then enter ten random letters (which is quite tedious, particularly as they are not very legible). And then you are told you haven’t won.
But the wrapper says that ‘if you are a winner, you can indicate your top two preferences from a list of books, one of which you should receive’.
And the website says the choices are ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ by Audrey Niffenegger, ‘Wedding Season’ by Katie Fforde, ‘The Truth about Melody Browne’ by Lisa Jewell, ‘The Beach House’ by Jane Green and ‘Knots & Crosses’ by Ian Rankin. All books by successful authors and all with convenient links to their own websites.
I would say, to give them their due, that Galaxy is not using this as a data collection exercise other than to ‘Like’ their Facebook page (as, at the time of writing, 594,335 sad people have done).
Apparently this gives you another chance to win a free book.
Anyway, having bought my four bars of sickly Galaxy chocolate, and read the packaging, I can tell you that this rather tasteless promotion ends on 25th May 2011.
We can then take a view on how much this little gimmick has cost the Book Trade and, in particular, the independent bookstores who are struggling so hard to survive.
And all for a few bars of ‘sugar, cocoa ingredients (cocoa butter, mass), skimmed milk powder, milk fat, whey powder, vegetable fat, emulsifier (soya lecithin), natural vanilla extract. Milk chocolate contains milk solids 14% minimum and cocoa solids 25% maximum plus vegetable fats in addition to cocoa butter’.
For this is what it takes to ‘melt into a good book’.