What’s so Special about Special Sales?

Blog (2017)

By Emma House, Deputy CEO, The Publishers Association


Over the past years we’ve seen much talk in the trade press about special sales, so we’re taking this opportunity to run through the benefits of special sales, both to the publisher and also to the author.

What are special sales? Special sales is a different way of marketing and selling books, often through non-traditional channels – and often taking books to people where they buy, rather than waiting for consumers to come to them. A special sales deal is conducted between a publisher and a ‘bookseller’ and is usually built into the contract between the publisher and the author. Clauses are often able to be built into contracts that can require a publisher to consult the author and agent before engaging in a special sales deal.

 What are the benefits of making such deals you may ask?

1)      Counter-balancing risk:- Publishing is a business which is often based in risk and speculation: it is impossible for a publisher to know with complete certainty how well their titles will perform, and as such they always deal with some level of economic uncertainty. Special sales happen with a ‘firm sale’ where stock is paid for upfront. This is extremely beneficial to both the publishing house and the author. Firm sales such as these help publishers keep afloat by guaranteeing a return on their books and maintaining cash flow, ultimately counterbalancing risk.

This has obvious benefits – economically healthy companies can afford to take on more authors – creating an environment in which publishers are happier to take bigger risks when it comes to debut authors, or books which may initially appear commercially risky. This positive effect is felt across all segments of the market: steady and guaranteed income from backlist special sales might help fund a daring literary novel that is released exclusively by high-end booksellers at RRP, they might help a publisher build on their core list, or fund a bigger marketing push on the titles which need it.

2)      Enabling repeat print runs:- Special sales sellers sometimes also come to the table on the occasion of repeat print runs, which can help publishers print bigger runs and bring their unit costs down to a more cost-effective level (when this happens, special sales editions are usually printed on lower quality paper with fewer embellishments). This helps to make projects economically viable for longer, increases the lifespan of a title, and boosts sales of under-performing titles. The benefit here is not felt solely by the publisher, but also by the author: at this point in their title’s lifespan, it’s unlikely they would see high sales figures without special sales, and the wider reach of these sales channels can bring more longevity to the author’s brand.

3)      Bringing to life ‘out of print’ books, and bringing ‘e’ first to physical:- Increasingly, publishers are reviving titles that had fallen out of print, and they prefer to do this through special sales than through print on demand, as this gives them the opportunity to rebrand the books and react to the market.

This is also how books that started off as ebooks are often able to break into the physical market. This sales method gives publishers a marketing tool that happens to generate income and reader awareness, rather than competition to full-price sales. When the words ‘special sales’ are uttered, people often picture the bargain bucket – however, the opposite is true; any publishing company wishing to increase awareness of a title will instantly have access to a wide range of non-traditional sales outlets such as museums, cafés, retail chains and independent shops through special sales.

Publishers will often take advantage of this market prior to the publication of a new book by the same author, due to a sudden relevance to current events, or the release of a film that has the chance of attracting interest from people who wouldn’t usually visit a bookshop. An author’s books will become more visible through this tactic, and this generates better word-of-mouth. Publishing is a passion-lead industry after all, and where a budget may not allow for hundreds of free promotional copies to key influencers, special sales is a good second option that can bring new loyal fans to a brand.

4)      Special sales provide the opportunity to reduce unearned royalties – for which it is in both the author and publisher’s interest to do so.  Equally, the sales may add to royalty payments even in a small way with publishers offering the highest rate possible within the margins allowed. 

5)      Expanding the audience for books and reading:- This sort of sale also widens a publisher’s reach by making their books more accessible to less affluent people and parents. Books are a luxury that cannot always be justified, and any parent of a voracious young reader can tell you how expensive keeping up with their child’s reading habits can be. Special sales break down socio-economic barriers by ensuring that consumers who can’t afford to buy books at RRP can continue to fuel their love of reading through special sales and contribute to the buzz about titles. At the other end of the scale, there are customers who prefer to buy their books at Waterstones, and this buzz will help influence their purchasing choices.

Special sales and the book market

Lower quality ‘special sales editions’ are already the norm. Special sales books are not always bargain books, but mean that the titles are available in well-known high street shops that don’t traditionally sell books. There are also circumstances that would see a publisher placing restrictions on where special sales customers can and cannot sell books.

Whilst it is true that online retailers do compete directly with the full-price listing, the cost of delivery usually applies to each title, which will put off any consumers buying more than one title at a time. This added cost often brings the price back up to almost RRP.

Impact on Authors

A publisher will always prefer to sell books at a higher price if possible: their profit is tied in with that of their author. Publishers do not usually sell new titles directly into special sales, but the sad truth is that high-street retailers cannot stock every title. If a publisher’s choice is between pulping stock that has been rejected by all major retailers, or giving it a new lease of life through special sales – and possibly convincing bigger retailers of the title’s worth along the way – the conclusion is obvious.

Publishers do ask authors to trust that we care about their success. A publisher must make people fall in love with their list, and to do that, they have to curate a list they believe in. It is the sole job of the publisher to help each title and author to reach its potential, and this requires multiple business models to operate through multiple channels. The publisher will always seek to achieve the best deal they can for their authors, achieving maximum sales – and sometimes these will be Special Sales.