Over the next few days an extraordinary farce will start to be enacted in bookshops and supermarkets the length and breadth of the UK. I refer, of course, to the long-awaited publication of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, officially released tomorrow, but already available (apparently) in fragmented form on the net. The element of farce attaches itself not to the contents of the novel but the way in which it is being brought to the punter.
You are a Dan Brown fan, let us say, anxious to get your hands on a copy first thing tomorrow morning. How much can you expect to pay? The price on the cover says £18.99, but Waterstone's has been hawking pre-order copies at £9.49 for the past six months. A click or two on the computer screen reveals that Amazon and WH Smiths are touting exactly the same knock-down. And here anyone with the least head for business will start to wonder how Waterstone's, Amazon and Smith's are going to make a profit out of this autumn's number one bestseller. Even with a 60 per cent discount from the publisher, overheads and promotional costs will swallow up the margin.
The answer, mysteriously enough, is that hardly anyone in the British book trade, apart from Dan Brown, his agent and his publisher, will make any money out of The Lost Symbol. The big chains are using it as a loss-leader to coax in trade. Many independent booksellers will find themselves in the absurd position of buying their copies not from the wholesaler with whom they usually deal but the Asda down the road.
At a rough calculation, several million pounds that could have been used to irrigate an industry struggling to emerge from recession is simply being thrown away in defiance of fiscal logic. Here, after all, is a product that hundreds and thousands of people want to buy. Why not make them pay a proper price for it?
By chance, the fanfare over The Lost Symbol's arrival in last Friday's Bookseller coincided with two other announcements. One was the demise of the fine old independent publishing firm of Marion Boyars. The other was the news that authors' advances are being squeezed. Up to a point, that is. Should you happen to be in the Dan Brown category you can expect to receive even more money up-front; the rest of us, though, can expect rather more frugality from our sponsors.
All this renders the book's publication horribly symbolic. For all the bright-eyed talk about 'diversity' in the nation's bookshops, the over-riding tendency in publishing is for more discounted copies to be sold of fewer, similar books. Some might argue that putting Dan Brown on sale at half-price is a thoroughly democratic way of making literature more accessible to a mass public. In the end, though, price-cutting simply devalues the allure of what remains.
After all, reasons the punter ignorant of book-trade economics, if Dan Brown's 600 pages sell at £9.49, why can't all novels be just as cheap? A return to retail price maintenance, in which books have to be sold for the prices stamped on their jacket, can't come soon enough.