Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why some great books don't get published

I'm still thinking about the talk given last week by Corinne Souza of Picnic Books.

During her talk Corinne observed that nowhere else but in the publishing is there a product being produced which people are hungry for but which is not being delivered to them. This was such an arresting observation that I have kept thinking about it since.

The origin of this strange situation can be traced back to the early part of the last century, when publishers set up something called the Net Book Agreement. The agreement stopped shops selling books for lower than the cover price. The effect of this was that no shop could try undercutting other shops. The public paid anomalously large prices for their books and booksellers large and small thrived.

But such an agreement was always doomed to collapse. It was a restrictive practice. A cartel. The inevitable started in 1991 when Waterstones among others started selling books at discount. If there was to be a price war the big chains could use their buying power to get better prices than independent bookshops. The economies of scale would enable them to undercut and put the squeeze on their competitors. The collapse of the agreement was completed in 1997 when it was finally declared illegal.

Anyone buying books in the UK will have seen the result. Small operators have largely disappeared. (Leicester lost its last two independent general bookstores last year.) Supermarkets had even greater buying power than the big stores and started selling paperbacks for under £3 a shot, thus undercutting even the big bookshop chains.

Low prices and huge volumes are now the name of the game. Thus the vast majority of the money in the publishing industry is made on the top few hundred best sellers.

If you were working for one of the main publishers, of course you'd be looking for books that would sell in large volumes from the shelves of Tesco. You might regretfully decline to publish the more risky, quirky, individual and challenging books that arrived on your desk in manuscript form. Such books would once have found outlets through the independent bookshops. But line those books up in a supermarket... would they really sell at the required volumes.

Curiously, when I go visiting book groups and do talks in libraries, I meet many people who are searching for the kind of literature that they don't find on supermarket shelves. "Give us things that are quirky, individual and challenging," they say.

Which brings us back to Corinne Souza's comment. These books are being written. There are people out there looking to buy them. But the mainstream publishing industry is not bridging the gap. Something is broken.

Perhaps that explains the recent flowering of new independent publishers, often rooted in regions outside London, often publishing books that are being turned down by the big players. Having said that, I see many books in manuscript form. Five of them in recent years have been so stunningly brilliant that I was sure they would be picked up - and yet have to this day remained unpublished. (I am talking about manuscripts of obviously greater quality, originality and importance than many of the books reaching the supermarket shelves.)

In this article, I haven't mentioned the Internet. Amazon. Viral marketing. Print on demand. Digital publishing. I will write more about that in another article.

As ever, please leave comments, because I would love to hear your views on this.


Katherine Macneil said...

Totally agree, Rod. The discount paperbacks in Asda have no real value the vast majority of the time. It is very interesting to hear the background and history of how the Tesco's bookchart has dominated some of the playing fields. Look forward to reading more about this :)

Mosher said...

I'll confess I'm generally happy with the cheap Tesco sales plan - but simply as I have so many books already sat there waiting to be read at home that the very few I pick up in Tesco are enough for me.

I also happen to like a lot of the authors that make it onto the shelves there.

However, I do still love wandering around a huge Waterstones looking at all the books I simply haven't got the time to read. When I used to read a lot of sci-fi, a dedicated bookshop (or comic store) could in no way be a replacement for Tesco.

Once I get my bum settled and back into real life I can see proper book shopping getting back onto the agenda. Right now, it's a treat I reserve for when I'm looking after my little cousin. She loves books more than chocolate - great kid :)

Paul Lamb said...

The last independent bookstore in my hometown (a large city of more than a million souls) is teetering on the brink of closure. I meet monthly with a book discussion group, and along with the book on the docket (generally a difficult, important novel), our conversation ranges toward obscure but worthy titles we've each come upon. I am certain we are the anomaly though. I think the market forces have "dumbed down" the choices available, and the consuming public has lost the sense of adventure in reading (which I think is different from the sense of escape, which most commercial novels do provide). But maybe as in many things (such as American politics, as we've seen recently), the pendulum will swing again.

Also, "flouring" must be the British spelling. We Yanks would spell it "flowering." Just sayin!

Rod Duncan said...


Nope. It is not the British way of spelling it. :-)

But that's what you'll get from time to time with a blog written by a dyslexic. I'll make the change back to standard spelling.

Dave M said...

In my experience of business, Corinne is completely wrong. In every industry on Earth, great products produced by anything other than the existing dominant suppliers have a hardtime getting to market.

The Net Book Agreement created a completely distorted market in books which allowed inefficient distributors to survive and publishers to indulge in publishing minority titles that would not have reached the market in any fair and competitive environment.

Furthermore, it is an insult to the customer to say that paperbacks in Asda have no value. They have a huge value to the people that buy them, and who incidentally represent a much higher percentage of the population than were buying books in the latter years of the NBA.

The industrial graveyard is littered with companies that tried to tell their customers what they ought to buy, rather than selling them the products they wanted (i.e valued). Good riddance to them!

'Value' is in fact defined by what people are prepared to pay in a fair and open market. Asda, like all succcessful retailers, is run by businessmen who don't care what they are selling. What they care about is: will enough people value the product to make it possible for them to sell it for a profit? That's why Asda and the like are a litmus test of value.

Writers have two choices: a) accept that they are artists who are more interested in their art than selling a product, in which case, to hell with whether the work reaches a commercial market or not; if you really believe people are out there hungry for your work, distribute it for free through the Internet; or b) actually produce something that people value and want to read.

Too often as writers, we believe that something is valuable just because we like it. In financial terms, it isn't. It's only valuable if you can print copies for X and sell them for Y, where Y is sufficiently greater than X that you can pay for marketing and distribution and leave a profit. The fact - sad or otherwise - is that publishing has a high fixed cost but a low marginal cost per copy, this means only works with wide appeal are going to make it over the bar. On the other hand, books with wide appeal can make a lot of money.

siobsi said...

I think the 'fair and competitive environment' of the 'free market' is crashing around our ears. Dave is talking about one kind of value when he talks about 'books with wide appeal'. But as Barry Turner noted, the cheap sales of discounted books in supermarkets, like the free downloads on-line, seem to be actually driving an ever greater expansion of the numbers of books being bought and read.

Corinne was contrasting the current situation with that facing breakthrough independent publishers like Tindal Street or Canongate some years ago. Mainly to do with distribution and access to the market. But I'm not sure I understand why she says the internet is no longer a friend to these small-scale producers.