As I walked past W.H. Smith on Coney Street, I noticed new copies of Philip Pullman’s long-awaited follow-up to his Dark Materials trilogy, The Book of Dust. ‘ONLY £9’, a sign nearby boasted. On top of this, with a purchase of the book you could receive a free copy of another childrens book, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl. It seemed as though W.H. Smith were throwing all their weight behind promoting the book, even if they were making a loss on each individual sale.
I did find this shameless discounting of Pullman’s latest novel ironic, given that our wider reading on our Writing in the Marketplace module included a Guardian article about Philip Pullman condemning ‘pernicious’ book discounts. “I don’t like it when I see my books sold cheaply,” Pullman said. “But I’d like to think I’m speaking on behalf of all authors who are caught in this trap. It’s easy to think that readers gain a great deal by being able to buy books cheaply. But if a price is unrealistically cheap, it can damage the author’s reputation (or brand, as we say now), and lead to the impression that books are a cheap commodity and reading is an experience that’s not worth very much.”
I walked further along Coney Street to see how the market competitor Waterstones was plugging the book. Although in my experience Waterstones are perhaps a classier book-selling brand than W.H. Smith, which tends to favour ‘3 for 2’ deals and half-price offers on celebrity autobiographies, I still expected all-out promotional warfare with W.H. Smith and Amazon, a ‘race to the bottom’ to see who could sell it cheapest. This wasn’t exactly the case. The Waterstones discount was actually far more modest: ‘£3 off’, stickers on the copies of the book read. This still made the book eye-wateringly expensive for a student at the price of £17. Alongside copies of The Book of Dust were new, limited-edition collectors’ hardbacks of the His Dark Materials trilogy being offered at £12.99.
I found the different marketing approaches from the two biggest high-street booksellers intriguing. It seems as though James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, has his fingers crossed on attracting the bourgeois book-collecting market, while W.H. Smith are appealing for childrens’ pocket money with their generous discounting. Admittedly, I went back to W.H. Smith and bought a copy for £9. Do I feel ‘guilty’, do I feel I’m complicit in cheapening Pullman’s ‘brand’, as he puts it? No, I don’t.
I would be intrigued to compare the profits between the two brands for this book. I would place my bet on W.H. Smith making the most profit, as consumers (rightly or wrongly) have come to expect significant cut-price deals on the most anticipated hardbacks. This means the book is being put into more hands, in particular those belonging to young people who surely can’t be expected to pay the £20 RRP. Do discounts cheapen Pullmans legacy? Of course not. Pullman will be regarded alongside fellow Oxonians Lewis Carroll and CS Lewis as one of the best writers for children. In making reading a ‘cheap commodity’ as Pullman describes it, you let more people have the opportunity to enjoy the rich reading experience that quality fiction offers.