Children’s and YA author Nicola Morgan has written a funny and interesting blog post about Sainsbury’s and the injustice of it winning the Martina Cole General or Chain Bookseller of the Year Award at the Bookseller Industry Awards this year.
This was, I’m pretty sure, the first time that the award had gone to a supermarket chain, and even in the course of the award event there was scorn being poured on the judging panel’s decision by various people on Twitter. The most cursory Googling reveals that the controversy continued the next day and beyond, and The Bookseller felt it had to justify the decision of the judging panel. But while I admire Nicola Morgan’s books and idealism, I have to disagree with her. I think Sainsbury’s, who managed to create a really big jump in book sales in a very challenging market, was a worthy winner of this particular award (and there are other awards that go to other, and other kinds of booksellers, in the same awards ceremony).
Don’t get me wrong. At Nosy Crow, we love all our retail customers and recognise and celebrate daily the role they play in the complicated and expensive business of getting physical copies of our books in front of parents and children. And we love an independent bookstore and a specialist bookselling chain at least as much as the next person.
However, it is undeniably impressive that Sainsbury’s achieved a significant increase in physical book sales predominantly from bricks-and-mortar shops at a time in which print sales are falling; one in every four books (and one in every five children’s books) is bought online in the UK; and ebook sales are growing rapidly and appearing to displace print sales.
Being a chain bookseller is exceptionally tough at the moment. Waterstones was, at the time the prize was awarded, for sale. Foyles (who won last year) and WHS (whose corporate goal is to be the nation’s most popular newsagent and stationer as well as bookshop, so isn’t quite as specialist as the other book retailers in this paragraph) are, of course, real contenders. Happily (very happily) for the book industry in the UK, Waterstones looks likely to be a powerful contender for the future as the acquisition of the chain progresses. Ottakars, Borders/Books Etc and British Bookshops and Stationers are no longer with us. Other book specialist alternatives might have been Book Warehouse (who sell mainly but not exclusively remainder books) or Oxfam Bookshops (who sell mainly but not exclusively second-hand books), but I can’t imagine that Nicola Morgan would have celebrated either of those chains winning.
And the challenges to chain bookselling are not unique to the UK: Barnes & Noble is changing hands and Borders filed for bankruptcy in the US, and the Red Group (owners of Angus and Robertson and Borders) is in administration in Australia.
Just to remind ourselves of what the bookselling landscape is looking like at the moment (and the importance of supermarkets), here’s the graph of books purchased in the UK by source of purchase (with thanks to Books and Consumers):
This graph also points up the relative strength of Sainsbury’s bookselling performance relative to the performance of supermarkets in general between 2009 and 2010.
In this context, the growing role of Sainsbury in the UK bookselling market is an important one. The decision by Sainsbury – or any other supermarket – to back a book can entirely transform the financial fortunes of a book. At Nosy Crow, we were really delighted and excited when the small team of dedicated children’s book buyers at Sainsbury’s backed several of our first titles, including risky ones: a debut novel (Small Blue Thing) and a series that is an innovative mix of fiction and doodling from an author/illustrator team with a limited track-record (Mega Mash-up). We’ll make more money on these books and so will the authors: we committed to more Mega
Mash-ups on the basis of retailer response to the first titles and Sainsbury’s was part of that.
Yes, the discounts to supermarkets are deep, but the volumes are high. The advances paid to adult blockbuster authors in particular are entirely predicated on strong supermarket sales. As a very rough estimate, I’d say that children’s authors/illustrators are earning perhaps 30p on most books sold via Sainsbury’s, so a sale of 3,000 copies might represent £900 in royalty earnings – which has to be seen in the context of the ALCS’s finding that the median annual author wage is £4,000 (and less, I would think, for children’s authors). This compares with 45p per book if the same book were sold via an independent, so the same author would have to sell 2,000 through that channel to make the same £900.
Sainsbury’s doesn’t make any claims to be promoting literacy or increasing access to books on its website statement of its goals (though, for the record it sponsored Book Start at a point when the scheme was under threat before the government funded it). From my perspective, though, anything that increases access to books (and I am writing this in the context of the recent report that three in ten households don’t contain a book, and one in three London children doesn’t own a book) and that makes buying books as easy and as unintimidating as buying bread, is a good thing.
Of course, I’d be delighted if Sainsbury’s took up Nicola Morgan’s author-touring book bus idea. I doubt they will. Sainsbury’s is a business. It allocates shelf-space and prominence to books (and everything else) on the basis of how well they sell in a particular shop. It doesn’t owe publishers or authors a living: its purpose as a business is to maximise shareholder value. If it can do that by selling books as well as bacon, I for one think that’s great. And if giving Sainsbury a particular prize for bookselling makes other retailers for whom it’s relevant think about what they might do to earn the award next time around, so much the better.