Last Saturday's Times came with an A5 pamphlet which was labelled 20 Modern Classics. The cover illustration clearly indicated that the classics in question were books.
At first sight, this pamphlet might have been taken for a product of the Times's noble aim of educating its readership. Was it, I wondered, a list of essential reading prepared and approved by the greatest literary minds of our time -- a list which all right-minded individuals would instantly read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest?
Well no, actually, it wasn't. What it was was a desperate attempt to sell a few books on behalf of (a) the Times, which will doubtless take its cut, (b) HarperCollins, which seems to have published the books, and (c) W.H. Smith (or WHSmith, as it now appears to style itself). Far from having noble motives relating to education, this turns out to be a marketing exercise, pure and simple. Well, simple, anyway.
The deal appears to be this. You wander into WHS on any Monday for the next 20 weeks, you buy a copy of the Times, and you also get the right to buy, for a mere 99p, the 'modern classic' which the three sponsors of this exercise have decided will be on offer. Different book each week. Full details of the offer can be found on the Times web site.
Hmm. Pardon me for being suspicious, but it looks to me as if HarperCollins is just trying to shift some stagnant stock which they have lying around the warehouse. So what of these 'modern classics'? Who are the authors, and how classic can the books reasonably be said to be?
Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of the Times, says in a foreword to the booklet that the list 'is a good one. It's full of books you should have on your shelves.' Oh? Why so? Well, every author is allegedly a prize-winner of sorts. But then there are prizes and prizes. As far as I am concerned, the most prestigious prizes (Nobel, Pulitzer, Booker) are usually a pretty good indication that the books involved are not going to be of any interest to me.
For the record, I have heard of 16 of the 20 authors involved in this 'modern classics' offer, and I have actually read a couple of the books -- the crime fiction ones, you won't be surprised to hear. Reginald Hill and Robert Wilson are both former winners of the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger award, which is usually a guarantee of high professional quality, if nothing else. As for the remaining books, they are a mixture of highbrow fiction and non-fiction, with all the usual suspects featured: Arundhati Roy, Penelope Fitzgerald, Any Tan, Tony Parsons, et al.
By a curious coincidence, the Times and HarperCollins are both News Corp. companies, which means that they are run (I understand) by a chap called Murdoch. I seem to have read somewhere that he has a young family to support -- or a young wife, anyway -- so I assume you will all rally round and pass over your 99p on a weekly basis.
The only one of the 20 books which looks as if it might tempt me is Sabriel, by Garth Nix. Never heard of him or his book before, but he comes with an endorsement from Philip Pullman; and Pullman doesn't strike me as a man who would give a plug just because his publisher asked him to do so -- certainly not without actually reading the book. (As so many do, you know. It's a wicked world.)
Final thought. What of the poor bloody authors? How much are they going to get out of a book selling at 99p?
My guess is that such sales will be covered by the small print of the contract, and the author's income is likely to be 10% of the money received by the publisher. At best. So, let's say 10% of 50p = 5p a copy. Or, to take the worst-case scenario, the sales might be dealt with under the 'remainders and disposal of surplus stock' clause. In which case the following sentence might apply: 'On disposal of stock at or below the cost of production, no royalty shall be payable.'
Still, the authors get all that free publicity, don't they? I'm sure they'll be happy with that.