Monday, 14 August 2017

How many books are actually SOLD in Wales?

The recycled paper industry needs our support......

Not long ago I was reading a blog from somebody who worked at Aberystwyth University. He said that from his office he had a view of a skip at the back of the building, which was used for the disposal of multiple copies of brand new books from Welsh publishers. He suggested that large quantities of unwanted books were delivered through the front door and dumped through the back door. I have no way of checking the correctness of this claim — but it tallies with other foul rumours that unsaleable new books published in Wales are given away to schools, libraries and colleges (even if they don't want them) and counted as sales. True or false? Perhaps somebody will tell us.

I have picked up on another rumour too -- namely that large numbers of books published in Wales are recorded as having sales of around 800 copies. What a strange coincidence! Could it be that whenever a new book is published, 800 copies are immediately distributed to the book trade from the Welsh Books Council (WBC) Distribution Centre in Aberystwyth, and ticked off as "sales"? When returns of unsold books then come back after a while to the Distribution Centre, presumably (if they are undamaged) they are returned into stock and are recorded as such. But are the "sales figures" then adjusted downwards?   Maybe, and maybe not.......

The record keeping relating to book sales in Wales is frankly lamentable, partly down to the fact that most books are sold by small retail outlets which have nothing to do with the book trade's electronic point of sale (EPOS) system. Hand-written invoices and vague sale or return arrangements proliferate!  I have found it almost impossible to find sales figures for the titles published by Welsh publishers such as Gomer, Parthian, Seren and Honno. I suppose that is understandable, since publishing is a competitive business. But if books are grant aided from the public purse (as the majority of them are) is there no measure of cost-effectiveness apart from a tally of the number of titles published per year? When a publisher applies to WBC for a grant, and gets it, is there no requirement placed upon him to report on his sales figures for every supported title? That information should be in the public domain.  For titles where the publisher carries the full commercial risk, the information should be confidential. 

Aggregated or average sales figures are not much use, although we do know that in 2015-2016 Welsh-language books were supported to the tune of £348,000 for 224 titles, which achieved average sales of 829 copies.  So approximately 185,000 books were sold -- if they really were sold -- at a cost to the taxpayer of £1.88 each.  That figure excludes marketing grants and other subsidies, and it excludes advances paid to authors against future royalties. Value for money?

I'll do another post one day about the subsidies paid out to "special projects" like the Library of Wales.

As I have pointed out before, the great and the good of Welsh literature (including senior academics) justify this vast public expenditure and slapdash record keeping on the basis that a small country should place creativity and innovation at the top of its list of priorities in order to support the Welsh language and maintain self-esteem -- while more or less accepting that most of what goes on is entirely non-commercial. In Wales, there are a few titles every year which sell well and make lots of money. I'll hazard a guess that most of those are about rugby or are about well-known sports or entertainment personalities. But it is rumoured that in order to be classed as a "best seller" in Wales a book simply has to sell 700 copies over its lifetime. That means, I suppose, that the great majority of books published sell fewer than 500 copies. Would those failing books ever have been published without a comprehensive financial support system? Certainly not. Would those books ever have been published in England? Certainly not.

And here is another question.  Publishing subsidies to the Welsh "mainstream publishers"  in 2015-2016 averaged £4,166 per title.  That sum is more than adequate to pay for the printing of a full-colour offset litho paperback or hardback with a print run of 2,000 copies. With commercial risk being effectively eliminated from the Welsh publishing industry, is there any requirement for grants to be repaid to WBC if a book does become successful?  If not, why not?

Is anybody applying scrutiny here, or demonstrating due diligence?  It appears not.......  I think that if I was Minister Ken Skates, I might be appalled.

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