Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Don't panic!

It seems that certain sections of the publishing industry are worried. About bloody time, you might think. Unfortunately they are not worried that they are over producing and that much of what they are pushing onto the shelves of bookstores is pap. That would be too much to hope for. No. It seems they are worrying that a certain, prominent ‘book club’ run on a daytime TV show by a couple whose names I cannot bring myself to mention is no more (or likely to be no more – it’s all a bit uncertain at the moment and may just be a bit of a bleat to try to drive up viewing figures from the abysmal 8000 to which they have sunk).

Far from being worried, they should be rejoicing. They should be thinking: “Bloody hell, how did we become so dependent on the title choices made by one person to prop up our industry?” £158 million worth of books apparently, with six authors made into millionaires.

Wow, you might be thinking. That’s good.

No. It’s not.

One person chose those books. If that doesn’t constitute a distortion of the market I don’t know what does. And as with the Rowling effect, once the golden goose stops laying, all that’s left, apparently, is goose shit.

As a business model this is wrong on so many counts it is difficult to know where to begin.

Let’s take the blatant and breathtaking contempt it shows by those worried publishers for all the authors who weren’t on the list of the chosen few. Are you really saying that without one person choosing books for a chat show to wax lyrical about (and we won’t even consider the allegations of editing out negative comments about the books from guests and reading groups) your other titles are insufficient to keep you in business? Are you saying the other authors you have put into print are producing goose shit? Are you saying an author is only worth the candle if their books sell enough to make them millionaires and your company huge profits? Well, probably not directly, but that is what is implied.

Another implication is that you have come to rely on those books to keep you afloat. What kind of business acumen is that? Can you handle the truth of that? It means you are shit at business. To strain the metaphor, you are putting all your eggs in one basket. Rather, you are putting all your golden eggs in one basket. And now there are no golden eggs, all the other eggs, all the other books, all the other authors… Goose shit. Not enough to keep us out of trouble.

Are those other books and authors really the equivalent of goose shit? To listen to me sometimes you might think I would agree that they are. Well. Some of them are. Slimy excreta. But the majority are not. Most are workaday pieces of entertainment and popular non-fiction that are written to the best of the author’s ability and which probably earn them a few thousand pounds. Occasionally there are flashes of brilliance.

But the market has become distorted. Not just by the ‘book club’ effect or by the black holes of publishing that hoover their way through the book universe depriving others of resources, finance, and the light of publicity (no names mentioned). A lot of the mainstream publishers have become craven in the face of supermarkets and big book chain stores who now dictate what gets published.

And many smaller publishers are pretty much the same, even those with jazzy (and painful to read) websites who exude a false street cred and talk about a ‘new’ approach to publishing.

The tail is wagging the dog.

There is sufficient leeway at present for decent books to get through and onto the shelves, but exciting experimental stuff, high quality writing that pushes at the bounds of literature (and bursts through them), is becoming harder and harder to find. And please don’t point me in the direction of any of the CW MA clones, or of any book that is basically science fiction even if the publisher and/ or author won’t admit it (probably because they would then also have to admit it was all done by more competent writers back in the middle part of last century).

So who cares about all this way out stuff? Everybody should. Because every so often the cosy, comfy world needs to be shaken up by a revolution. Cosy, comfy establishments need to be challenged, because if they become too cosy we end up seeing the same thing over and over, the same stuff from the same authors (and their chums) with a different title and a cover pretty much the same as every other cover on the shelf. If its gets too comfy it gets bloated and lazy.

Now, I am the first to admit, there is a place for books that are simply well-written entertainments. And people like stuff they know they are going to enjoy without having to read it first. Again, nothing wrong with that as long as writing standards are high. But we cannot exist on that alone. Without a vanguard, without explorers, we will end up with books that are so homogenised and anodyne there will be, quite literally, no point in taking any of them off the shelves. People will give up on books.

That, for me, is a nightmare scenario. It is a truly dystopian future. Imagine it: a world without books. Call the firemen!

So. What’s to be done, dear publishers? Well, stop panicking about the loss of that fecking ‘book club’. It might have shifted product, but I doubt it did much to turn on huge numbers of people to reading who didn’t already pick up a book or two. Then start looking for that backbone you had surgically removed around about the time the nba ‘collapsed’ (did it fall or was it pushed?). Once you’ve had that stitched back in, kick out some of the accountants and hire more editorial staff – people who can tell a book from a hole in the ground. Don’t get undergrads on work experience (especially those whose daddy can afford to give them a private income). Don’t get anyone who has been within a hundred miles of a university that has a CW MA programme (because you’ll end up with them signing up their chums). Sign up new talent (which will mean cutting out obscene advances to people who need editors to write their books for them). Nurture your new talent. And then, armed with good new stuff and a backbone, stand up to all those retailers who want to flog books as loss leaders, who want obscene discounts, who want to dictate content and cover design. Tell them to fuck off.

People will still buy books. They will probably buy more, especially if you drag yourselves into the 21st century and make intelligent use (yes, I said ‘intelligent’) of modern technology; especially if you have new and exciting content to offer them. The publishing industry – especially the big mainstream publishers – cannot afford to carry on like Walmington on Sea’s Local Defence Volunteers. Yes, they always muddled through. But that’s all they did. Muddle through.

Stop panicking.

Get sorted.



Leatherdykeuk said...

I'm glad to see them finish. They never chose my book. ;)

Graeme K Talboys said...

Yay! Me too. I sent them one of mine and never even got a 'thank you'.

We should start a 'My book wasn't chosen by R&J' book club.