Wednesday 26 March 2014

The cut-price Faber poetry books

For two years I’ve been buying the occasional Faber poetry book from Judd Books in Bloomsbury, where they are priced at £2.95 or £3.95. There’s a shop in Oxford where the same books can be bought for £2. It’s not far from the Albion Beatnik bookshop, run by Dennis Harrison, who is hugely supportive of poetry and runs regular readings and is annoyed, to put it mildly, that many of the same titles he has to order in at regular prices are available down the road for a song.

When one of my own in-print titles (Paleface, 1996) started turning up in Judd Books and the Oxford shop, I asked Faber what was going on. Matthew Hollis told me that he had ‘instituted an inquiry’; I suggested it might be simpler to just ask the sales manager, or walk up to Judd Books and ask where they got their stock from. The Faber Sales and Marketing Director eventually explained that ‘from time to time, we do modest stock reductions in order to control inventory and therefore costs. This is very much standard practice in the industry as I am sure you are aware. We pay royalties of 10% of net receipts on these sales.’

‘Modest stock reductions in order to control inventory’ is partial remaindering. One obvious effect is to aggravate regular booksellers who wish to keep even single titles of backlist poetry in stock.

Last November Faber sold off 50 copies of Paleface for £13.50 (that is, 27p per copy, less than half the price of a first-class stamp). I am due to receive royalties of £1.35.

Did it not occur to Faber to offer those copies to me, the author, at the same price? I’d have certainly taken some; Faber would have achieved their desired stock reduction and no booksellers would have been aggravated in the process. This seems to me a pretty obvious way to go.

(But I suspect this option wasn’t even considered. In my own experience, Faber’s communication with its authors is not good. For example, two years ago a man who taught me at university wanted to get in touch, so wrote to me c/o Faber, the publisher of my poetry and a place where I worked for 14 years, asking them to forward the letter; his letter was returned to him with the message that they didn’t know who I was. While working freelance for Faber in recent years, the publication date of a book I was project managing was postponed for a year without anyone telling either the author or myself; in another instance no one at Faber could give me the author’s contact details (I had to find them myself on the internet); for other books I worked on drafts that were not final, so had to redo the work; etc.)

The Sales and Marketing Director has offered to sell me further copies of Paleface according to the ‘same arrangement’ by which they sold off 50 copies in November (so presumably 27p per copy). The other poetry books that have been subject to ‘modest stock reductions’ include titles by Auden, Ford, Francis, Harsent, Heaney, Hofmann, Imlah, McKendrick, Muldoon, Paterson, Paulin, Riordan, Walcott, Williams. I’ve asked him if the same offer will be made to these other authors (or, if deceased, their estates), and also to poets published by Bloodaxe, whose sales are handled by Faber Factory Plus.

Partial remaindering of in-print books may well be, as the Faber S&M Director has said, ‘standard practice’. I doubt most authors or book-buyers are aware of this. I’d rashly assumed that if a publisher wanted to reduce stock (to save on warehouse costs), then as a matter of natural courtesy the books would be offered first to the author, before the remainder merchants. Apparently this doesn’t happen. So a new clause covering this needs to be added into the contracts.

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