Thursday, December 30, 2004

British book publishing as a business -- part 1

For the next few days we shall be looking at a selection of essays by Eric de Bellaigue, recently published by the British Library under the title British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s – hereinafter to be referred to as BBPB.

In the past, relatively few people have shown any interest in book publishing as a business. Most individuals who have gone into publishing, and certainly most of the writers who have supplied the books, have been lacking in knowledge of, or interest in, the strictly financial side of things. Furthermore, those who have chosen to comment on publishing as a business have been few in number and have found even fewer readers.

The first thing to be said, therefore, is that Eric de Bellaigue’s scholarly and well researched book is much to be welcomed. It should be read by anyone who is contemplating a career in any aspect of publishing, whether as writer, editor, accountant, or salesman; not to mention any venture capitalists and media moguls who are thinking of buying a publishing company.

One thing that can be said with absolute confidence, however, is that few such people will actually bother to take this advice. More fool them. The least you can do, as a partial act of self-preservation, is to read this review.

For better or for worse, BBPB is not a cohesive whole. It is, as I said at the start, a collection of essays, some of them ten years old.

The introduction rightly points out that publishing is an industrial minnow, and a relatively unprofitable one at that; a business which, at first sight, is likely to be of minimal interest to those who are seriously interested in making money. Its one saving grace, perhaps, is the law of copyright. It is that law alone which enables publishers to go on making profits for decades out of those rare books which turn out to capture the public imagination (e.g. Lord of the Rings), or which require a place on every bookshelf (Oxford English Dictionary).

The book consists of ten chapters, and I shall make a few comments on each, with some overall comments at the end. Some of the earlier chapters, in particular, were originally written in the 1990s, and one sometimes needs to remember that while reading them.

Chapter 1: Post-war mergers and acquisitions

It has been a feature of the last few decades that the many independent publishers which once flourished in London (and a few elsewhere) have gradually been absorbed into a much smaller number of large companies. Large, that is, by publishing standards. Much of the book is dedicated to a study of this process and its effects.

I have remarked in the past that sensible discussion of the UK book trade is hampered by a lack of reliable figures; in fact, I have suggested that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics about the UK book trade. And Bellaigue himself admits that ‘debate centres on statistics whose consistency sadly leaves much to be desired.’

However, while Bellaigue does not have absolutely certain knowledge of what is going into the preparation of every company’s accounts, it is reasonable to suppose, I think, that his figures are about as good as we are going to get. So, we might begin, for instance, by noting that the total consumer market for books in the UK was worth about £1.98bn in 2002 (say £2bn in round figures).

If we assume that publishers get around 50% of what goes into the high-street booksellers’ tills, then book publishing in the UK earns about £1bn a year. This is not a large sum (though it sounds large). Bear in mind, please, that the combined income of solicitors’ firms in the UK is about £11bn a year; care homes for the elderly bring in about £10bn. The overall market for books is slightly smaller, in financial terms, than the market for chicken.

Chapter 2: Imprints under conglomeration

Bellaigue proceeds to consider the effects of the apparently unstoppable process of conglomeration. Is it reducing choice, and producing a homogenisation of product? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing?

Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson is quoted on the effects of conglomeration. It has led, he says, to a transfer of power from the publishers to the large bookselling chains. It is the latter who are now calling the shots.

If true, and I have no reason to doubt it, this is hardly good news for either writers or publishers, though it may be good news for readers, if you regard cheap books and 3 for 2 offers as the most important factor in your choice of reading matter.

Bellaigue rightly points out that writers and publishers have been in this relatively subordinate position before. About a hundred years ago, in fact, when Mudie’s circulating library was hugely powerful. Mr Mudie dictated that all novels must be long (‘three-deckers’), and he also influenced the plots, to ensure that nothing available through his library could possible offend a sensitive young woman. Hardly a recipe for success in 2005, one feels.

The author’s overall conclusion to this chapter is that conglomeration has posed, and will pose, an increasing threat to diversity and individuality in publishing.

Bellaigue is certainly right as far as big publishing is concerned, but things have changed somewhat since the essay was originally written. We should not overlook the impact of changes in printing technology and the internet, both of which make it much easier for individuals and small companies to publish new work than was the case in the past.

Bellaigue includes in this chapter a section on authors’ attitudes to conglomeration. He makes the point that, given their publishers' increasing emphasis on economy and profits, authors have begun to turn to their agents for services (such as advice on plotting, and even editing) which might once have been provided by publishers. To cope with the demand, the number of agents offering their services has markedly increased in recent years – from 34 in 1946 to 120 in 1994.

More tomorrow.

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