Mr Nicholas Clee has been rather visible recently, with the publication of a new book, Eclipse, and a recent article in the New Statesman about (among other things) the effect of celebrity "authors" on book publishing (see this Petrona post) and what seems to be the implementation of the long-promised subscription-only status for his Bookbrunch blog. I look forward to seeing whether that particular plan works.
Mr Clee wrote a long piece in yesterday's Times, which I read with interest on my morning train journey (causing me to defer the crossword and sudokus until a later time), with the title The decline and fall of books. The piece follows on from some of the themes of the New Statesman piece, but this time is mainly a test-drive of the Espresso machine and opinions about Amazon's new, super-wide Kindle. Mr Clee is negative about the Espresso machine as it currently stands, mainly on grounds of the quality of the product, but also lack of choice of titles and non-functional search. He goes on to provide a sombre obituary list of bookshops that used to grace the Charing Cross Road in London, victim to cheap prices and vast stocklists of Amazon and its marketplace sellers. Even a well-stocked physical bookshop, whether a giant chain or a small specialist store, has relatively few customers at any one time, and cannot stock everything that those few may require. Hence, opines Mr Clee, the rise of the celebrity blockbuster, as publishers and booksellers search for a business model that can work under these constraints.
He writes: "publishing the so-called “midlist”, or any book that does not come with some kind of marketing angle, has become more difficult. A book has to be “promotable”: the author will be young and attractive, or have an interesting CV; the work will tell an extraordinary story. Biographies of literary figures outside the top rank, or novels with undemonstrative virtues, do not cut it. The reason why Tindal Street Press – an Arts Council-funded imprint in Birmingham – was able to publish Clare Morrall, the Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist, and Catherine O'Flynn, the Costa award-winning writer, is that no big publisher saw the potential of these authors' novels. (They do now: Morrall is with Sceptre and O'Flynn with Penguin.) Some acclaimed authors have moved to small houses: Maggie Gee (formerly HarperCollins), for example, is now with Telegram Books, and Tibor Fischer (formerly Chatto & Windus) is with Alma Books.
Practices that have been normal in the book industry for years are becoming unsustainable. You pay an author an advance – say £15,000 – that is probably too large, even though it is too small as recompense for what may have been a year's work. You print 1,000 hardbacks and manage to sell 800 copies to booksellers. Lorries bring them to your warehouse and take them out again to the shops. The book gets a few reviews, but no recognition from prize jurors. Half of the copies come back and they, along with the 200 that never left, get pulped. A year later, the paperback comes out. Richard and Judy fail to recommend it, the booksellers do not select it for their three-for-two promotions. The lorries go to and fro again and more books get pulped. No wonder publishers are looking for new authors through low-cost ventures such as HarperCollins' Authonomy, a self-publishing website, and Macmillan New Writing, which pays no advances."
This, then, is where the e-readers and the Espresso machine come in – but Mr Clee does not seem at all optimistic about the future of real-world bookshops, however the book-publishing industry transforms itself.