If you have been paying attention, much of what follows may be well known to you. But bear with me. Something which might be mistaken, on a dark night, for original thought, may appear at the end.
Somewhere in one of yesterday's papers (and I cannot now find it, of course, when I want it), there was the result of some research carried out with British children into what aspects of life they thought important. It turns out that what modern British kids think is most important -- more vital than being healthy, for example -- is being a celebrity.
Who can blame them? Poor little devils, they grow up surrounded by convincing evidence that being famous is indeed the most gracious state to which they can aspire. The available evidence suggests to their impressionable little minds that celebrity will bring with it everything that could conceivably be of value: friends, money, security, popularity, leisure, travel; and all like that.
Furthermore, it is abundantly obvious to the little ones that, in order to achieve celebrity you don't actually have to do anything. It is sufficient to be. Witness the Jades, Jordans, and countless others who have become a blur in my mind.
So commonplace a topic of playground discussion has the celebrity phenomenon become that the term celebrity itself is now subject to abbreviation. Celebrity is no longer quite a four-syllable word: the kreck pronunciation now is sleb.
The publishing industry sometimes seems to hold the same view as the kids: i.e. that slebs are the most important people on the face of the planet. Certainly there has been, in the last decade particularly, a constant stream of sleb biographies: or, much more commonly, autobiographies, nearly all of them ghosted.
Some of these sleb books have proved massively successful. For example, Peter Kay, a man whom I have barely heard of but who evidently has a huge following, is currently selling 80,000 copies a week.
The result of this situation is that the half-dozen or so big-time trade publishers in the UK have for some time been involved in a bidding war. An agent who represents a sleb has only to lift the phone, it seems, and bids of a million or so will follow.
Last week, Tim Hely Hutchinson, head of Hachette UK (i.e. Hodder Headline, Orion et cetera), declared, with typical English understatement, that UK publishers may have paid too much for some celebrity biographies. And in Prospect, as mentioned here last Thursday, Trevor Dolby made the same point.
What we've been short of, until this week, was some data revealing just how appalling some of these over-payments have been. Always assuming, of course, that the reported figures for advances paid are something like the truth. Of which more in a moment.
This week, happily, Private Eye has provided some sales figures to illuminate the discussion. Set out below are some classic examples of business-decision failures; the name of the celebrity is followed by the reported size of the advance, and the total sales so far (which in many cases will be the total sales ever). Bear in mind that, according to Dolby, sales of 333,000 of a £20 book are needed to recoup the advance:
David Blunkett -- £400,000 -- 2,000
Gary Barlow -- £1,000,000 -- 50,000
Johnson Beharry -- £1,000,000 -- 18,000
Rupert Everett -- £1,000,000 -- 20,000
Ashley Cole -- £250,000 -- 4,000
Michael Barrymore -- £300,000 -- 5,000
Chantelle -- £400,000 -- under 5,000
Shayne Ward -- £200,000 -- under 5,000
Is it possible, one asks oneself, that UK publishers could have been quite so stupid? Well yes, it is. Long years of observation leave us with no option but to conclude that.
True, a new novel by this year's Great Hope (not all of them White these days) will typically be publicised as having been paid a 'six-figure advance'. But I would be willing to bet quite a chunk of my pension that, in most cases, said contract is actually for two books, at least, with staged payments, some of which will be geared to the performance of the first book in the marketplace. So the massive sum (if you think of £100,000 as massive) is not quite so massive after all.
But in the case of sleb books, I have a nasty feeling that the £1 million probably means £1 million.
In other words, UK publishers are bleeding money. Again.
So what, we may reasonably ask, is the sleb effect?
I suggest that this trend has two principal effects on a mainstream trade publisher: lost of prestige, and loss of interest.
There was a time when publishing was perceived as a prestigious activity. It was, as the title of Frederick Warburg's autobiography made clear, An Occupation for a Gentleman. It was also a business in which the daughters of genteel parents could safely be allowed to spend their time until, inevitably, they got married in St George's, Hanover Square.
But now? Now publishing companies are revealed as publishers of trash, to use a polite word. A young lady, acting as receptionist to Snipcock and Tweed, may find herself mixing with the likes of Jordan, Jade, and Chantelle; not to mention some thoroughly undesirable socially, though undeniably desirable sexually, young men. And think where that could lead.
The lip-curling will not end with mummy and daddy. It will spread throughout the media and the financial world.
Ah yes. Finance. And there's the real problem.
Publishing you see, as implicitly recognised in its reputation as a suitable profession for a gentleman, has never made any money. The evidence is overwhelming. I defy you to read, for instance, Eric de Bellaigue's British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, and come to any other conclusion. 'Trade publishing,' he tells us, 'is by no means a sure route to financial success.' For the sophisticated investor, it is something that he might take a bet on, much as he might buy a share in a race horse.
There was a time, centred around the 1980s, when a number of big international companies somehow conceived that publishing could be made to generate serious money if the publishers were absorbed into conglomerates which contained television, film, real estate in the form of theatres, cinemas, and so forth. Synergy would result -- that was the theory.
Time, for example, bought the small English publisher Andre Deutsch. Privately, both Deutsch and his right-hand woman, Diana Athill, considered that this purchase was remarkably silly; and so it proved.
A sense of reality soon dawned on the big companies which had absorbed the smaller fish. And now, miserabile dictu, there is talk that the big companies might actually dump their publishing arms. Success in publishing, when it occurs, is demonstrably more due to the roll of the dice than anything else, and perhaps that's not the best way to run a business.
Time Warner, for instance, decided to sell its book division earlier this year to French media company Lagardere. And there is speculation that other media giants might decide to follow Time Warner's example.
CBS might sell Simon & Schuster; NewsCorp might dump HarperCollins (it has been a bit of a nuisance lately). 'Both companies,' says one analyst, 'would be fine without books, and getting rid of those divisions could give a boost to their growth rates.'
There are, apparently, private equity firms which might be willing to buy these publishing firms, and then try to achieve what so many others have already tried, and failed. The argument, apparently, is that publishers generate 'steady streams of cash'. That's not my impression, or Galleycat's either, but then a lot of private equity companies seem to think that they are much cleverer than the rest of us.
Let's hope that such companies do come forward to buy up the failures. And that they can indeed turn things around. Otherwise trade publishing is going to be in even bigger trouble than it is already.