The story so far is this. In December 2004, Aultbea Publishing, a Scottish firm which had previously specialised in publishing scientific and technical journals, published a book called Dragon Tamers by a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Emma Maree Urquhart.
In February, the Times published an article about this book in which various claims were made about sales, film rights et cetera. I wrote about the Times article on 7 February; I made the point that some of these claims seemed to me to be more likely to be publisher's hype than established fact, and I wondered aloud why a paper of the Times's standard should be publishing a press release apparently verbatim and without asking any obvious questions.
By the way, some of the links in my posts to old newspaper articles may no longer work.
Later in February, a similar article appeared in the Independent, repeating most of the earlier claims and carrying a headline to the effect that 'Schoolgirl's tale about dragons becomes hot stuff in Hollywood.' I wrote about this article on 18 February, saying, among other things, that, since there was no evidence that anyone had even bought an option on the film rights, this headline seemed, shall we say, a trifle premature.
The Independent published yet another piece (written, like the first, by the paper's Scotland correspondent, Paul Kelbie) on 21 June. This June piece offered nothing new. I commented on it in my post of 24 June.
By that time I was getting a little tired of what was, after all, a relatively trivial matter, but various readers pursued various aspects of the story (see the comments on my post of 21 June), so I decided to try to establish a few facts instead of groping in the dark.
Earlier this week, I sent an email to Charles Faulkner, who is the owner of Aultbea Publishing, and he has now replied. I shall reproduce my own email, and his reply, below, after which I shall make a few comments. And that, I hope, will be that.
I would like to say at the outset that I am grateful to Charles Faulkner for sending me a very civil and reasonable reply. In the circumstances he might have been forgiven for being a little testy. He could also have legitimately claimed that the questions that I asked were matters of commercial confidence and essentially none of my business. It is to his credit that he has replied as fully as he has.
Here then is what I wrote to Charles Faulkner of Aultbea on 27 June.
As noted above, Charles Faulkner has now replied to my email, and here is what he had to say:
Dear Mr Faulkner
I run a daily book blog, the Grumpy Old Bookman (link below), which reports on and comments on the UK book business. Earlier this year, the GOB blog was listed by the Guardian as one of the top ten literary blogs worldwide.
The first press reports about Emma Maree Urquhart's Dragon Tamers appeared in February. On 7 February I wrote an article on my blog about the report in the Times.
I began by saying this: 'If Emma Maree and her publisher have managed to sell a decent number of copies of her book, congratulations to them. I am delighted. I am always pleased when anyone achieves even a modest degree of success in the book world, because God knows it doesn't happen very often.'
However, I noted that the Times report contained little in the way of hard fact, and I was sceptical that a publisher with virtually no previous experience in book publishing could have sold 50,000 copies in six weeks.
On 18 February I noted that a similar report had appeared in the Independent with a headline which was patently absurd.
Last week (24 June) I noted that there was a further lengthy report in the Independent which repeated some of the earlier claims but added nothing new.
It is not, of course, uncommon for publishers and commercial enterprises generally to sing the praises of their product, and to give optimistic assessments of how well those products are performing in the marketplace. However, in my blog reports I have expressed some dismay that newspapers of the quality and standing of the Times and the Independent should have accepted a publisher's publicity statements at face value, without asking some obvious questions.
That being the case, I would like to put to you some questions which would occur to anyone with a reasonable working knowledge of the UK book trade. I hope you will feel able to reply, and if you do the answers will be reported on my blog.
I would like to address three issues: sales of Dragon Tamers in the home market; sale of film rights; translation deals.
1. Sales of Dragon Tamers in the home market
Were sales and distribution of the book handled entirely by Aultbea, or did you use the services of some other organisation?
Was the quoted sales figure of 50,000 made up of many individual orders from high-street booksellers, Amazon etc., or was it, in part or in full, a bulk purchase by one company?
Can you give an indication of total sales to date? By 'sales' I mean the number of copies actually bought by readers, and recorded independently by Nielsen Bookscan; I do not mean the number held in stock by booksellers or in your warehouse.
2. Film rights
Have you succeeded in selling the film rights of Dragon Tamers outright?
Or have you sold on option on the film rights?
In either case, can you name the purchaser, and the price paid? A broad indication would suffice: e.g. a four figure sum (i.e. £1000 to £9,999 range), five-figure sum, etc.
3. Translation deals
Have you succeeded in selling any foreign rights in Dragon Tamers? If so, can you name the companies, languages, and give a broad indication of the price paid?
As one who has had practical experience of publishing in the past (and I still run a small press today), I am well aware of how difficult it is to sell books. To repeat: I admire anyone who can achieve even a modest degree of success in today's market. And I understand full well that, in order to attract attention to a book, it is necessary to plug it hard. However,unless you can provide me with more evidence than has been made public so far, I shall remain of the view that the success of Dragon Tamers has been overstated.
In addition to writing to Charles Faulkner, I also sent an email to Paul Kelbie, Scotland correspondent of the Independent, with the following covering note:
Re: Dragon Tamers
Thank you for your interest in our young authoress Emma Marie Urquhart and her book Dragon Tamers.
I note from your letter that you are listed by the Guardian as 'one of the top ten literary blogs worldwide.' I am sure that you have worked hard to achieve this accolade with 'Grumpy Old Bookman' which I really enjoyed reading.
I thought that it might be a good idea for me to set the record straight and answer your questions as there has been a lot written about Aultbea and our young authors. To some extent I think that you are right in pointing out that the hard questions have not been asked yet.
The main thrusts of your various articles were, I think based on the quoted 'sales' figure of 50,000 copies. What I said at the time was that we had printed 50,000 copies and that I expected to have them sold quickly as the sales trend was encouraging. The press have used that figure and connotation since.
I will briefly cover your other points. There was a film contract that was at final stages of negotiation for a US Corp. to take an option. We pulled out. There is another multimedia deal that is in late stages of negotiation but I cannot give details until it is signed.
We have succeeded in selling the foreign rights to Dragon Tamers and again, once the deals have been signed, this information will be made public.
I want to hear what people think of our young author's tales and stories. Once we have read all of the critics, once we have given these young people a fair chance, then maybe we can look at the commercial aspects of this. The time for talking about numbers is not now; it is confusing the issue as was evident by the graphic definitions and explanations in your questionnaire.
[Paragraph omitted in which he gives me his private phone number.]
Do call me if you have any questions whatsoever.
Once again, thank you for your interest in Aultbea Publishing and our authors.
Charles Faulkner, Aultbea Publishing, Inverness
So far I have had no reply from Mr Kelbie. Well, he's probably on holiday. It's that time of year.
Dear Mr Kelbie
Set out below is the text of an email that I have today sent to Charles Faulkner, owner of Aultbea Publishing Company, about the novel Dragon Tamers. If you have any comment to make I shall be pleased to hear from you.
Finally (at last! I hear you sigh; if you have read this far), let us make a few concluding comments.
What we have here, not unexpectedly, is a publisher banging the drum for his book. Why not? It's what he's supposed to do. Authors complain loud enough when their publishers don't do it. And, OK, so he exaggerated a little here and there. It is hard to complain about that, when we have a Government that does the self-same thing.
What irked me originally, and irks me now, is that two newspapers (at least) should have printed what was clearly an overly rosy version of the facts. What, I think it is reasonable to ask, did they think they were up to?
Either the reporters who wrote these stories weren't doing a very good job, or else they knew full well that they were printing unsubstantiated claims, and were just desperate for something to fill up the white space. Which, in a quality newspaper, is deplorable.
Well, as I say, it's all essentially trivial, apart from the point of principle about what appears in the press. I do hope that Emma Maree Urquhart, and the other young writers who are now published by Aultbea, have been told that you shouldn't believe everything that the newspapers tell you.
Perhaps now we can all turn to something else.