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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 October, 2004, 23:35 GMT 00:35 UK
What price a Booker prize winner?
By Gavin Stamp
BBC News Online business reporter

Book store
Bestselling books are often heavily discounted
Alan Hollinghurst, winner of the 2004 Booker prize, will enjoy instant celebrity and a windfall extending far beyond the 50,000 prize on offer.

The accolade of Booker prize winner provides a huge boost to a book's sales, with the last three winners each selling over half a million copies.

Despite the proliferation of literary prizes, the Booker continues to offer authors the biggest shop window.

But it is now almost as important to retailers as to authors and publishers.

This year - unlike many previous years - the winner is likely to be the subject of a retail price war, reflecting intense market competition and a shift in how and where books are bought.

Literary gold dust

Book stores will lose no time in promoting the successful novel.

Irrespective of its literary merits or the amount of publicity generated by its author, retailers will treat the novel like gold dust for at least the next six months.

It will be sought out by ardent book lovers and once-a-year buyers alike.

It will help to sell the winning author's back catalogue while providing a much-needed catalyst to get shoppers into book stores at a generally quiet time of the year.

Discounting hurts us both and retailers share some of the pain
Will Atkinson, Faber & Faber

The winner also used to stand out for being one of few recently-published novels not to be sold cut price.

By tradition, the six short-listed books are aggressively discounted in the month leading up to the award in order to stimulate interest.

However, the winning novel was -until a few years ago- considered sacrosanct in terms of pricing.

Given the enormous publicity that the Booker confers on the winning novel and the strong demand for it afterwards, cutting its cover price was neither thought necessary nor commercially sensible.

Fierce competition

However, fierce competition in the retail market, combined with a periodic slump in sales of contemporary fiction changed all that.

Last year's winner, DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, could be snapped up for free in Waterstone's as part of a three-for-two offer immediately after it won the award.

Discounting undoubtably helped sales but others would say that the book would have sold well anyway.

"Discounting books hurts us both and retailers share some of the pain," admits Will Atkinson, sales director of Faber & Faber, Vernon God Little's publisher.

However, Mr Atkinson says that it is in the interest of both publishers and retailers to maximise interest in the winning novel whatever it takes.

Book sales
Supermarkets are selling more books at the expense of independent firms

"It is up to retailers to look after their business and they are closer to their customers than we are," he adds.

"If they feel it is right for their business than it is up to us to respond."

According to Nielsen BookScan -which monitors weekly book sales from 5,000 UK stores -the average retail price of a book rose 40p to 7.45 between 1998 and 2003.

However, this rise masks intense price competition in all areas of the market, not just the most popular categories such as thrillers and celebrity biographies.

Competition has been largely fuelled by the aggressive discounting of books by supermarkets which have steadily built market share in recent years.

Bigger discounts

Anyone who doubts the impact that supermarkets have had on book retailing in recent years need only look at a recent bestseller list.

Of the ten best selling books in the week ending 9 October, according to figures from Nielsen BookScan, five were on sale for an average of less than 5.

Although publishers and retailers negotiate the prices at which books are sold, retailers hold the whip hand.

"The discounts supermarkets are demanding are just getting bigger and bigger," says Sydney Davies, head of trade and industry at the Booksellers' Association.

Mr Davies says supermarkets play a key role in attracting new readers but he says discounting is a concern.

"They are forcing prices down and there has to be a limit. Books cost so much to manufacture. You cannot sell them below cost price. It is ridiculous."

Discounting may have become endemic across the book industry but there are some stores for which it is not a crucial consideration.

Hatchards, which is 200 years old and has a loyal customer base, will not be discounting the Booker winner. "Discounting has increased but it is not considered vital, " says Dan Hudspith, marketing assistant at the London store.

"Everyone has offers, particularly for new books, as customers expect it. But it is not a make or break issue.

"The vast majority of sales come from a store's back list and these are rarely discounted."




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