Thursday, April 29, 2004

Crystal balls and other forms of bollocks

I have a friend called George, and every so often we have a drink together in the Faggot and Dyke, where we discuss the state of publishing in general and British publishing in particular.

Unlike myself, George is a cynical hard-bitten chap, of a seriously pessimistic bent; whereas I, of course, am renowned for my sunny disposition and upbeat, almost Panglossian attitude to life. The result is that between us George and I create a formidable dialectic; out of our dings and dongs there emerges, eventually, the noble synthesis of truth. Hegel and Marx would be proud of us.

So it was that one day last week George and I were discussing the works of Jason Epstein. Jase, as you will recall, is author of that great and goodly tome Book Business, first published in 2001. In less than 200 small pages, Epstein gives us not only a potted history of publishing since 1945, as witnessed by himself, but also a vision of the future. And it was then that George asked me the following question: Who is there, he said, on the UK publishing scene, who can offer us a similarly authoritative vision of the future?

Well, I said, there’s Gail Rebuck. And there’s that Cheetham fellow from Orion. And Tim Hely Hutchinson. And a few others.

And do you know what George did? He just sat there and sniggered. Yes, he really did. It was a most unattractive sound, and I had to speak to him quite sharply about it.

Anyway, we kicked this concept around for a bit, and I must admit that, by the end of our discussion, I did feel just the slightest bit doubtful. So I went back and had a look at recent pronouncements by some of the luminaries of the UK book scene.

I began by reminding myself of Gail Rebuck’s address to the London Book Fair in March this year. The Guardian kindly reprinted it. Ms Rebuck, of course, is Chairman and Chief Executive of the UK Random House Group, and is therefore a power in the land.

Sadly, by the time I had reached the sixth paragraph of Gail’s speech, an unworthy thought had entered my head. The text contained so many learned literary references that I began to wonder: had she really written this herself? Or was it like that recent article in The Times by Jacqueline Gold, boss of the Ann Summers sex shops – a clever piece of p.r. work, but obviously written by a p.r. person and not by the one whose name was attached.

As for what the lengthy piece says – well, it argues that books are really important, and will be the saving of civilisation. Which I wouldn’t disagree with. Books will be valued, says Gail, ‘because they embody two of the most prized (but elusive) commodities of our age – authenticity and trust.’ A statement which again I would not seek to demolish. But authenticity and trust? Are those the two words which come to mind when you contemplate the output of our biggest publishers? Celebrity autobiographies, written for said celebrities by someone else, and seldom even read by the person whose name is on the cover? Full of lies and half-truths, which will be denied if necessary – as in Roy Keane’s case?

Five out of ten for Gail. Good try. Do better next time.

More recently, the Bookseller has given us a few extracts from a couple of addresses to the Booksellers Association’s recent session on Mapping the Future.

First, James Heneage, managing director of book chain Ottakar’s. James tells us that we are entering a boom market for books. He cites, God help us all, celebrity autobiographies, TV tie-ins, and Richard and Judy’s chat show as vehicles/avenues which will lead us to this glorious future. He welcomes the entry of supermarkets into the book business, and he claims, in passing, that traditional booksellers have a crucial role in ‘building new talent.’ Funny, I always thought it was the writers who developed themselves. And finally he talks about the danger of losing ‘experimentation and innovation’. Losing them, Jim? When did we ever see any?

No, sorry. Too low on the scale to score at all.

And finally, Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury. He does at least mention authors as if they were key players in the game. ‘The future will be mapped in large part by the author’, he says, ‘and at the end of the day, publishers are midwives, not parents.’ Dead right, Nige. Trouble is, though, I have from time to time looked at the Bloomsbury catalogue, and I’ve never yet seen a book there that I actually wanted to read. Just to be sure I wasn’t misremembering, I have just pulled out the Bloomsbury catalogue for autumn 2001 and dipped a finger into the fiction section at random. Nope, sorry, nothing there for me. A bit too highbrow. Bloomsbury without ole Harry Potter would, I suspect, be a bit like Faber without Cats: up the creek.

So, three out of ten for Nigel, since I’m feeling generous.

Do you know, I am beginning to have the horrible feeling that my friend George was right, and that the leaders of the wonderful UK book trade don’t really have any clear and inspiring vision as to how writers, publishers, booksellers, and readers will all interact in the future. And so now, since I am apparently such a know-all, you will want to know what my vision of the future is.

Well, I think that there will continue to be a massive demand for ‘books’, however defined, but both the demand and the supply will take different forms. And of course the traditional book trade will survive, and perhaps even grow, throughout the lifetime of everyone reading these words. But sometimes these days, when reading the book sections of the weekend broadsheets, I begin to suspect that what they contain is increasingly irrelevant. There is a whole new world out there in cyberspace. There are massive numbers of writers and readers who have pretty much given up on the old way of things, and are creating and finding new ways of doing business.

Why have people given up on the old ways? Because, for a variety of reasons, the old ways don’t deliver what’s wanted. Yesterday, for instance, I was looking for some material on the history of blogs. And there are a few old-fashioned (in the sense of printed) books on the subject. But not many, and they’re not new, and they’re expensive, and none of them are in my local council library – and they’re not even in my local university library. So I made do with an internet search instead. If I could find an ebook covering the subject, which looked as if it provided what I am looking for, I would buy it like a shot.

And don’t underestimate the self-publishing business, either. Time was when self-publishing was strictly for losers. But as the big publishers continue to merge, and as they continue to be more and more interested (perforce) in the huge sellers at the expense of everything else, there are going to be plenty of perfectly sensible people who no longer even bother trying to deal with agents and traditional publishers. (And God knows it isn’t much fun.) These people will just go their own way, because this is the digital age, and you can. (And if you want an example of how one eccentric elderly English writer has done just that, click on the link to Kingsfield Publications.)

More later, as the news services say.

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