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“Highly Prized, Highly Priced”: Book Slam UK’s Experiment in Publishing

The experience has been “better than we feared and worse than we hoped.”

By Patrick Neate

We’ve been running Book Slam for the last decade. Fusing prose and poetry, live music and comedy, it’s the UK’s best regular literary event — really, it is: in terms of attendance, atmosphere, quality of guest…over the last 10 years, we’ve featured everyone from Adele to Zadie Smith (via Plan B, Caitlin Moran and DBC Pierre). You should come.

It took a while, but we’ve built up a loyal following. Up to 500 people attend each event, more than 100,000 listen to our podcasts and we have a dedicated mailing list of 20,000. Last year, therefore, we decided to move into publishing and, in November, brought out One For The Trouble – Book Slam Vol. 1, our first annual, collecting newly-commissioned writing from the event’s alumni including Irvine Welsh, William Boyd and Helen Oyeyemi.

Our model is a simple one based on three self-evident principles.

  1. We have access to writers of high calibre who like what we do.
  2. We have access to an audience of book lovers who like what we do.
  3. The advent of digital publishing has opened up possibilities of both production and distribution to a small organisation like ours.

Only the last of these requires further illumination, so here goes. We have published One For The Trouble as a limited edition hardback, signed by every short story writer. It is sold only through our website, at our events and through a few select bookshops. It costs £30 – our philosophy is highly-prized and highly-priced. It is also available as e-book and audiobook, from our own website and all the mainstream aggregators (iTunes, iBookstore, Amazon, Audible etc). On our website, we sell the e-book for £1.99, the audiobook for £2.99 and a bundle of both for £3.99. The thinking behind all this is hardly rocket science. The digital editions cost little to create, store or distribute and we sell them as cheaply as we can. The physical book is a high-end thing of beauty to enhance any bookshelf and is priced accordingly. This is surely now, one presumes (and, indeed, reads), a common model for the publishing and bookselling industries.

So how’s it gone? Well, the slightly obfuscatory answer would be “pretty much as expected.” Perhaps a more honest (and interesting) one in terms of both sales and process would be “better than we feared and worse than we hoped.” The physical books have sold very well, but haven’t yet sold out; the digital editions started slowly, but are picking up as our profile on the various aggregators begins to grow. As with the event, we have seen that turning interest into sales is a tough step. Healthy web traffic and a large mailing list are a great starting point, but they don’t automatically generate sales volume.

Another headache that slowed us down was working through the processes of digital production and distribution – the creation of various formats, placing them on aggregators etc. The simple fact is that the quality of information out there is still very poor – even among the aggregators themselves and, gallingly, among those who’ve set themselves up as experts in the field.

What has become clear is not just that publishing and bookselling are changing, but that nobody knows quite what they’ll become (least of all those who claim to). As for us? We don’t know either, but we’re happy with our model and reasonably confident of its future success. Besides, at the moment we feel rather like the little boy who enjoys his first day at school, but, when asked if he’s looking forward to going back tomorrow, seems crestfallen. ‘What?’ he says. ‘Do I have to do it again?’ You see, ‘Book Slam Vol. 2’ is due out in the Autumn …

DISCUSS: Is the Print Book Destined to Become a Souvenir?

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  1. George Stirling
    Posted April 26, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    It’s a shame there’s no option for those who want a physical copy, but can’t/won’t shell out £30.

  2. Posted April 26, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I think your problem is that you priced the physical, signed copy too cheaply. I would suggest £100 is more sensible, perhaps £200.

    If people want the content, they can get it for a very reasonable price. Those people who want the physical book are buying something different. Something super-premium. Something special. They will be prepared to pay a lot.

    Go free or go premium. Very, very premium.

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