Via Book Business Magazine we receive this tale of woe originating at The Bookseller.

Peter Donaldson, managing director of Red Lion Books in Colchester, relates

“A few days ago, a customer approached our counter. She had in her hand the just published, new edition of that wonderful reference work Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. Endlessly fascinating, it is an idiosyncratic treasure trove of word history, culture, folk lore and legend—and one of my favourite books. At £45, the price was more than our customer was expecting. I encouraged her saying that running to 1,600 pages it’s a monster of a book and one that will be used time and time again. For the right person it will become a loved friend in the bookshelf for a lifetime. Looked at in those terms, the £45 seems less daunting; more an investment and lifetime resource.

However, it seems a less worthwhile investment when The Book People and Amazon are selling it for £12.99.

I am well aware that since the demise of the Net Book Agreement every retailer can set their own prices for all books. I also recognise that, like supermarkets, some retailers of books might sometimes choose to sell at an unrealistic price as a “loss leader”. However, we also all know that there is some relationship between the discount a publisher gives and the price that a company can realistically sell at.

I think it is clear that selling a new book at over 70% discount (plus free postage on a heavy book) is way beyond normal discounting of new titles and one can only presume that the publisher, Hachette’s John Murray, has given a discount which enables this. If so, then surely it is short-sighted. It undermines sales through high street shops, which are under enough pressure anyway. Shops that support and sell across the range of John Murray’s books.

If you consider the publisher’s earned income from a title across different market sectors, then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that, in reality, high street bookshops are subsidising the discounts given to online and direct-to-consumer operations like The Book People.

We and our customers are treated as mugs.

Brewer’s might be a relatively recent addition to the list, but I believe at least six generations of John Murrays will be turning in their graves!”

Now of course he’s right, isn’t he? Not necessarily I fear. The whole tale seems a little odd. As far as I can see, John Murray doesn’t in fact publish an edition of Brewer — though several other publishers do. It’s one of these popular reference books which has largely migrated to the special markets/promotional/remainder-table market, and all sorts of publishers compete for the lowest denominator buck. No doubt Mr Donaldson is referring to the Chambers 20th Edition of the book which was published on 1 November this year at £45 in hardback. (Chambers is also part of Hodder & Stoughton, which in turn is part of Hachette — acquisitions make for messy structures, so who knows whether Red Lion Books may not be ordering their Chambers books from the Murray rep?)

The Book People do indeed have a Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable for £18 but it’s a paperback of the 19th Edition, also listed as coming from Hodder & Stoughton. Amazon UK offers this edition at £13.93, while they do indeed show an offering of Mr Donaldson’s £45 hardback for £12.99. However if you drill down to the next level you’ll find that all the copies Amazon UK is offering are from partner sites, book dealers, and while there is indeed one copy offered at £12.99 most of them are over £30. Indeed one intrepid seller in Germany is trying to tempt you with a price of £51.09 (these odd looking prices on Amazon are usually translations from a different currency). It almost looks like Amazon hasn’t ordered this edition at all. Chambers published it a month ago, so it can’t be a matter of the books not having arrived yet. Maybe Amazon have decided that the market for Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is just too capricious to play in, and have decided just to leave it to the remainder-table market.*

One can sympathize with Mr Donaldson, clearly a fan of the book. A well-stocked bookstore should no doubt represent this book.  Maybe in addition to his £45 copy he might buy for 1 penny a “good” used copy of the 1981 edition as a discounted alternative.

The problem appears not to be with Chambers’ or Hodder & Stoughton’s discounting policies, and certainly not with John Murray’s. The problem is the modernization of the book market, enabling people to access books “slightly used” or allegedly “new” at all sorts of prices. Sure things were simpler with the Net Book Agreement. I used to like it when the telephone was tied to the wall, and you didn’t have to remember to take it with you, but now we just have to play along.

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* This explanation becomes rather less probable when one finds Amazon US offering the £45 book, as a regular Amazon-stocked item. They show their discounted price of $37.39 as being reduced from a published price of $59.95, consistent with a £45 UK price. This entry is just what one would expect from any regular book stocked by Amazon. It is a bit odd too though. Amazon lists publication date as 5 March 2019. The ISBN they show is the same ISBN as Chambers is using in the USA. The publisher who they say will be supplying this book in March next year is Teach Yourself, yet another imprint of Hodder & Stoughton.

However, as of today, you can buy a new copy of this book from Amazon US but you can’t get one from Amazon UK, where you can only get it from a partner dealer. Can it just be that Amazon UK is out of stock temporarily? If they cannot supply a book, Amazon will take down the publisher’s information leaving only any partner offerings there may be. If this is the correct explanation, it’ll be interesting to see what price they ask when/if it comes back into stock. However the book is currently available for instance from Waterstones at £45, and from W. H. Smith at (sorry Mr Donaldson) £29.25. Brave new world that has such discounts in it!