Trends in book publishing

At BookBrunch blog*, Nicholas Clee, former Editor of the Bookseller, draws attention to an article he wrote in the New Statesman  in the wake of the just-finished London Book Fair. He says the article "has a somewhat misleading headline: I do not think that celebrities have been the prime causes of anything." The article's title is "How celebrities saved, and then killed, the book trade".

Mr Clee then provides a quote from the article, which I assume means that he believes it to be the main message: "However, these trends are not the fault of the celebs, or of Richard and Judy. They are the consequence of the conglomeration in publishing and bookselling; of the proliferation of media; and of the undermining of a cultural consensus that could tolerate, without embarrassment, such concepts as literary excellence."

Actually I think they are mostly if not entirely to do with readers and what they are prepared to pay their money for. The full New Statesman article describes how, in Mr Clee's belief, celebrities and 'Richard and Judy' have provided artificial but short-lived bursts of life to the publishing industry – but what happens next? He describes how hard it is for an author to get published these days – authors who have already published several books can't even get a look-in with their new work, or if an editor likes a title, it will not get approved by the sales and marketing departments. Online retailers (mainly Amazon) and digital forms of content (mainly e-readers at the moment) are even bigger threats to the industry, says Mr Clee.

While I don't disagree with Mr Clee's analysis of the business model of publishers, I don't agree with him that celebrities alone are providing the "artificial" boost, and I don't agree that the boost is short-lived (although unfortunately, the Richard and Judy [a.k.a. Oprah] effect, which emphatically was not about celebrities or marketing budgets but about what someone thought was a good book when she'd read it, does seem to be on the wane). There will always be "celebrity authors" who are not authors because they are celebrities in the sense of Jordan, Victoria Beckham, Naomi Campbell and their international equivalents, but because they are James Patterson, Danielle Steel, the ghost (in both senses of the word) of Catherine Cookson, Dan Brown, Nora Roberts, Wilbur Smith, etc. (Between them, these mega-authors produce more than enough for one person to read in a year, if anyone wanted to exist entirely on such a diet.) These authors are huge sellers because their books are popular with readers – they are authors who are only famous for being authors. I don't see this category drying up any time soon, any more than I believe that the appetite for the next Miley Cyrus, Zak Ephron, Russell Brand et al. will end (most of these books will be actually written by jobbing authors, so they at least keep some scribblers on a payroll, even if they have no "literary merit").

At the core of these analyses is the fact that not many people buy much of the great bulk of literary fiction or non-fiction. They probably never did. Cultural standards have indeed changed due to mass media and lowest-common-denominators, as Mr Clee writes, but it is not possible to infer from that, that there was a time where all the people who are now reading "popular" TV- and celebrity-inspired books used to read literature. In fact I don't think it is the case. They were probably all listening to the "wireless" ;-).

The book publishing industry as a whole is not a mega-profit-making industry. There are a very few giants, but the rest do not make vast profits or even in many cases small profits. These companies know what books will sell, roughly how many copies, how to sell those copies. It does not make sense to "blame" them for not publishing literary works rather than the books that people actually buy. Yes, a cheap, highly promoted "book of the week" offer will produce a spike in sales, but those customers would not have purchased a highbrow work of literature instead if the deal had not been offered to them.

What will happen is some kind of hybrid, via print on demand or digital formats (sometimes "published" by the authors themselves); and the internet will become increasingly relevant in targeting books to readers (perhaps with libraries as the middle-men rather than publishers?). Some "publishers as we now know them" will adapt and survive, some won't – because "long tail" readerships are individually small, and there are a heck of a lot of authors producing all and any kind of material for them to choose from. Readers will certainly benefit from these technologies, but it is very tough for authors in this intermediate but not steady-state, in which publishers aren't publishing their books and if they do it themselves, they aren't going to find a large market other than in exceptional cases (such as the title selected for publication by Harper Collins's Avon imprint via its Authonomy scheme, which turned out to have been previously self-published and marketed very effectively on Authonomy by Steven Dunne, the author – read all about it here.).

*If you click on the link you might get a message stating "you are not allowed to view the blog. You will have to be a member first" (even if you are a member and signed-in). In that event, go to Bookbrunch main page, click on the blog tag, and look for posts on 24 April. What a palaver.


12 thoughts on “Trends in book publishing

  1. Well fancy, it appears they have finally done what we were talking about last Wednesday: introduced their paying subscriptions. For me, I have no access to the blog because of this. Darn.

  2. So far as I can see, CFR, you can read the blog if you go to the main bookbrunch page and click on the tab for the blog (as in my footnote). Worked for me on this one post, anyway, though I could not see the blog when logged in via the blog itself.
    What was even more annoying is that when I finally read the post, all it consisted of was the two-line intro and the quote – which I had read in the RSS reader previously! The New Statesman article has all the meat, and seems to be free at the moment, although that does not help for other Bookbrunch posts, I agree.

  3. I managed to get as far as the introductory two lines. But it’s certainly now pay time if you want to read the blog. I wonder how successful they will be given the economic climate. I, for one, won’t be subscribing, due to my employment situation.

  4. Ridiculous. I predict they will make no money charging access for a blog. Nobody else has. In the meantime, newspapers across the planet are going bust daily – and they have proper content.

  5. Incidentally, I am employed and will not be taking out a subscription. Or to any other blog. I can get plenty of intelligent, stimulating, amusing and informative material for free – more than I can read, that’s for sure.

  6. I’m curious about the book sale numbers. I’m actually buying more books now that I ever have. What real choice do readers have? ebooks – not likely.
    I also have no problem finding intelligent and interesting fiction amongst the celebrity written or promoted works. Dragging me empty-handed out of the bookstores is difficult.
    I’m just one person of course, but I still wonder why it would be harder to publish today than before – there seem to be plenty of good new books available.

  7. A really good post, Maxine. I am not able to digest it all in one go, I am afraid, but I heartily agree on this one:
    “ is not possible to infer from that, that there was a time where all the people who are now reading “popular” TV- and celebrity-inspired books used to read literature. In fact I don’t think it is the case. They were probably all listening to the “wireless””.

  8. Robert – agreed there is plenty of (too much) choice for readers, but most books don’t sell very many copies – figures available via Bookseller/Neilson in the UK and via Publishers Weekly in the US. Most books sell a few hundred copies, which is not enough to be viable from the publiser perspective. Hence, in the UK, since the abolition of the National Net Book Agreement, we have seen massive discounting, special “3 for 2” offers, more and more competitions and awards and other publicity. This does not help the “steady but not mega selling” novelist, who by comparison with 50 years ago, finds it very hard to get published, unless he/she can “package” in some way (sell their image or repackage as “crime thriller”), self-publishing and the internet beckon. More and more mainstream publishers are digitising their back content and starting print-on-demand programmes for new fiction. That’s the way it will go for “normal, averagely selling, good fiction”.

  9. Amazing that books that only sell a few hundred copies get published at all. But even with the discounting, I think books are too expensive, and it certainly slows my purchasing down.
    I really want a copy of “Lucky Jim” – a very old novel, but still only available in shops for £7.99 – how can this be fair.
    Like CDs/DVDs, if ebooks take off, the industry needs to stop selling them at such high prices or people will pirate them instead.

  10. There will always be trends in publishing. We need to find the next in-thing for the publishing industry, instead of lamenting about the past. Publishing industry needs to understand that both TV and Internet are offering a lot of interaction with viewers resulting in rapid feedback at agency level itself. In the publishing industry we have to wait for someone to get whole industry aggregates and provide an analysis of that. Its hard to determine the success of a book before it gets published. On the TV or Internet, we can test an idea before launch, here we dont have that facility. The pubishing industry needs to think about winning back its readers that are moving to other media.

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