Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Food for thought

The Sunday Times (16 May) carried an interesting review of a book called Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate, by Felicity Lawrence.

The book reveals a host of abuses in the UK food business. For instance, chicken breasts, as sold in a UK supermarket, may legally contain as little as 54% chicken. The other 46% will be water, salt, gum, and other additives which include proteins extracted from the hide, bone, and ligaments of animals such as cattle.

Cheap food, as provided by the supermarkets, is largely unhealthy food: e.g. white bread and chicken nuggets made mostly of skin. ‘Choice’ is available, for those who can afford it, in the form of expensive ready-made meals which are highly processed and laden with salt, sugar and fat. They look good but are relatively tasteless and are less than ideal in nutritional terms.

In short, dear friends, what we have in the big-time food business – all too often – is shit masquerading as value. Sometimes it’s not even metaphorical shit – it’s genuine animal faeces containing the bacterium E.coli, which can give you a serious bout of food poisoning. Which is why, if you really must have a burger, you should make sure that it’s cooked at a high temperature.

Felicity Lawrence’s book also sheds light on some of the supermarkets’ brutal negotiating methods. Suppose, for example, you run a dairy producing yoghurt. And suppose you want to get your product into Smith & Jones’s powerful chain of food shops. My dear, you are first going to be asked for a listing fee. In other words, you pay Smith & Jones £1m (a sum actually quoted by Lawrence) and you then get to talk to the company, who may, if they’re feeling particularly generous, allow you to sell them your yoghurt. But they will only put it on the back shelf. If you want it up front, where the customer can see it, you will have to pay extra.

The thought which occurred to me, on reading the Sunday Times review of Lawrence’s book, is that what is happening in the food business is exactly paralleled by what is happening in the book business. Albeit on a much smaller scale.

First of all, in today’s publishing and bookselling, we also have shit masquerading as value. Well, all right, let’s modify that a bit, since it’s a nice day and I am less grumpy than usual. What we have, we will say, is the mundane and the run-of-the-mill being presented as if they were fantastic achievements.

What happens, typically, is that a publishing firm finds a new Wunderkind. This new writer still has a lot to learn, naturally, because he’s new, but he shows some talent and he’s a male model and he writes a column in the Guardian. So he is, naturally, the perfect choice for the autumn’s big book. Only trouble is, the book is much like any other first novel, a bit shaky. Not shit, then, but not a yummy chocolate cake either.

None of this stops the big-time publisher from giving this author a huge advance (good publicity, allegedly; free publicity anyway), a huge marketing budget, and a five-minute slot to impress the troops at the sales meeting. This kind of book/author is exactly what the publisher wants, because it’s also what the bookselling chains want. They live and die by the big sellers, just like the publishers.

Another parallel between the food business and books is that listing fees in supermarkets are now being echoed in book retailing. A couple of years ago, an article in The Spectator revealed that the going rate which a publisher had to pay, in order to get a book labelled as W.H. Smith’s ‘read of the week’ was £10,000. The fee for being declared Waterstone’s ‘book of the month’ was £2,500. (And you thought it had something to do with experienced readers actually reading the book? Ha!) In both cases the publisher would be expected to give the bookseller an extra 7.5% discount as well as the fee.

On 9 May this year the Observer revealed the latest version of this ‘listing fee’ practice as found in the book trade. (Thanks to Maud Newton for the link). The big publishers are now taking the book-buyers from the leading bookseller chains on expensive ‘sales trips’ – otherwise known as free holidays – to introduce them to their leading authors. Hutchinson, for instance, took book-buyers to Italy so that they could be told all about Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii. Simon and Schuster took a group to New York to meet Hillary Clinton. (Well they could hardly find out anything about her by staying at home and reading the newspapers, could they? Be reasonable.) And CollinsWillow took the sporty gang to Madrid to meet David Beckham. Average cost of each of these outings: £30,000 to £40,000.

So, as we survey the lovely and entrancing book-publishing scene, we can make certain predictions. Just as the supermarkets are squeezing every bent ha’penny out of their suppliers, so the big book retailers will bully, harass and browbeat the publishers into giving them product at an ever-lower price.

And guess who... Oh, but if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ve already guessed. Guess who is going to be given a slimmer share of the already thin pickings to be had from this book-publishing game? The authors, that’s who. Because they are weak, isolated, defenceless, and naïve if not actually stupid.

Fortunately for the book publishers, there seems to be a never-ending supply of mugs, suckers, and halfwits who will work on a book for a year or more, in their own time, and without a penny piece for it, just for the ‘pleasure’ of having an agent and/or a publisher send it back after six months (maybe) with a printed rejection slip.

Given a long queue of such naïve scribblers, book publishers need never fear that their supply of books will dry up. Whether those books will be any real good, of course, is a different matter. Even the briefest survey of past publishing history suggests that writers often take three, four, or five books to get into their stride. But nowadays a publisher wants a big smash hit first time out, and is prepared to spend £250,000 or more to make it look like a hit. So nobody is going to worry about the actual quality of the book, are they?

Well yes, as a matter of fact they are. My guess is that the readers will worry about it. Eventually. The penny will finally drop. In due course. The readers will get to page 45 of this ‘amazing, wonderful, hot new book’ by Camilla Fancypants, and they will realise that it is actually... erm... not very good. Thrown together by an amateur who lacks any technical knowledge not to mention experience. But who photographs beautifully and is the Prime Minister’s daughter. Awfully well connected, and a darling to boot.

What happens then? What happens when readers discover that the big firms are not really delivering quality product, in the sense of deeply satisfying books?

My guess is that readers will resort to the same practices as some food buyers. Felicity Lawrence suggests that, where grub is concerned, you should buy locally grown produce, unprocessed, in season, and directly from the grower if possible.

Same thing with books. Serious readers will be obliged to go out and search a bit. And with the internet at their fingertips they have a whole new way of searching. And the writers are certainly out there, if you look. Some of them are published by the smaller houses. Some are self-publishing, PODing it, ebooking it, blogging it. So if you look, you can find the good quality stuff, the kind of thing that you happen to like. It just takes time and effort to find material which is rewarding to you – and what is rewarding to you will not necessarily appeal to me. But it can be done.

Meanwhile the big publishers and the big retailers probably won’t disappear, any more than the local supermarket will close if a few sensible people go to the farmers’ market. But they may scratch their heads and wonder why profits aren’t rising.

1 comment:

jon said...

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