Monday, January 31, 2005

Untold stories

One thought that occurred to me over the weekend, remembering Friday's post, is that the vanity publishers (to use a convenient shorthand term) do have one useful function. They allow the publication of personal memoirs which would otherwise be lost.

Let's face it, most people's lives are not very interesting. I did once think about writing a memoir of my own early life -- but only for about fifteen seconds. That was how long it took me to realise that no one would read such a book; not even my own children.

But that's because I have lived a comparatively dull and uneventful life; thank goodness. Suppose, however, that I had served at a high level in the civil service, or seen military service in the second world war. In that case I might have something to say which was not only interesting in itself, but which would be valuable to future historians.

The problem with history is that it's quite difficult to keep track of what is happening even while it's going on. Two hundred years ago, communications were slow and in many cases almost non-existent. Go back further and they were worse. I seem to remember reading that when Marco Polo wrote a letter home, he had to wait seven years for a reply. Nowadays, of course, we have instant communication. But who shot Kennedy? Are you sure? We have information overkill.

Future historians, looking back, are going to have one hell of a time figuring out what was really important and what was not. And so fifty years from now, an old man who writes about his experiences in the Bush White House or the Blair Downing Street is going to have something really valuable to tell us.

Most memoirs, unless they are full of really startling revelations, are simply not going to get published by the mainstream firms. I am quite certain of that, because a few years ago I was asked by a local man, a retired ambassador, to help him to get his memoirs published. It was damned hard work, but we eventually achieved publication through a small academic firm. And this is where we come back to the vanity publishers.

Elderly men and women who feel that they would like to leave a record of their experiences can now do so in a way which is capable, in theory, of remaining in print for ever. If their memoirs appear in digital format as well as book form, they can be lodged on one of the super-libraries that are now being planned for online access, and historians, both professional and amateur, can use them as a resource.

Personally I would never discourage a person who is approaching the end of their life from writing their life story if they so wish. For a relatively small amount of money they can get it printed in a perfectly acceptable format. They would be foolish to hope that it's ever going to sell many copies; but it may well be something of which they can be justifiably proud.

The sad thing is -- and I have personal knowledge of such a case -- that an elderly person who has a really interesting story to tell may die before they ever get around to putting it on paper. So the moral with memoirs, as with much else, is: don't leave it too late.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The unpublished, the published, the unpublishable, and like that

Publishers Lunch newsletter usually includes a reference to something worth following up, and yesterday's was no exception. AP have a report on PublishAmerica and other similar organisations. This is essential reading for any writer who hopes to understand how the publishing business is currently organised, and what options there are for those who want to break in somehow.

The US National Endowment for the Arts estimates that more than 14 million Americans have engaged in some form of creative writing. (A comparable figure in the UK would be, what, 3 million?) Many of these people will eventually have enough material for a book, if they haven't already. So what do they do?

Well, they probably try the traditional route. They send the manuscript to publishers -- or try to. The big publishers now all flatly refuse to read such material. So then the would-be writers try the agents, some of whom also refuse to read unsolicited submissions. And eventually, writers discover that there are now firms (some call them vanity presses) which will publish their book for them, either for modest fees (modest, that is, when compared with the cost of self-publishing ten or twenty years ago), or for nothing. Of these, PublishAmerica is one.

PublishAmerica is somewhat controversial in that it presents itself as a mainstream publisher rather than a vanity publisher, and it doesn't, apparently, charge any upfront fees. But writers do not get the level of editing support that a traditional firm would (normally) supply. And, more important, marketing is pretty much nil; you won't find copies in your local bookstore unless you persuade the store to stock them yourself.

The jury is still out on this one, and I have no particularly strong views. It so happens that I publish my current work myself, through my own small press, Kingsfield Publications, so I know that it is possible to self-publish successfully, provided you have modest and realistic expectations. But I am able to do that because of my long experience in the book trade as both writer and publisher. If you are an out and out beginner, and you really want to see your work in book form, then you would certainly need to look at the services offered by the newer firms.

The AP article deals only with American companies, but there are others in the UK. There are some which look promising, but you will have to search. As I mentioned some months ago, the UK firm Matador looks as if it might do a good job. Deborah Lawrenson was satisfied with it -- see my post of 29 November 2004. And no, I don't get a percentage for referring you there.

What you should remember, above all, is that PublishAmerica has published nearly 11,000 books. Of these, 1,000 have never sold a single copy.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


I mentioned the 'writer's resource' site Backspace a while back. As such sites go, this one is far better than most. It offers, for example, Parts I and II of Richard Curtis's excellent analysis of modern publishing and its problems; though there is no sign of Part III as of this writing.

Today I happened to notice that Backspace also offers an interesting interview with the New York agent Deborah Schneider, who represents quite a few of the leading crime writers. She is interviewed by Jan Burke, who is herself a successful crime writer; she is a former winner of an Edgar, which, if you don't know, is the crime-writing equivalent of an Oscar.

Burke's interview with Schneider originally appeared in The Third Degree, which is the newsletter of the Mystery Writers of America organisation. You have to be a published writer to join MWA. I used to be a member but gave up at about the same time as I left all those other interesting but time-consuming and expensive (in membership fees) clubs and societies that one seems to accumulate in a working lifetime.

Schneider has much good sense to offer. Of course, if you're as old as I am you will have heard most of it before, but we must remember that there is always someone reading it for the first time. And boy, do those people ever need to be told. Here is a sample:

Getting published will not solve all your life’s problems; having a good story is not the same as being a good writer; we’re reading dozens of manuscripts a week, some of which are a priority, and even if we want to get back to you quickly with an answer, we can’t always—if you’ve dropped off your novel on a Friday, please don’t call on a Monday and ask if we’ve read it yet; there’s no parity in the marketplace: just because your best friend got a six figure advance doesn’t mean that you are entitled to the same; agents do not shape the marketplace, they sell to it; grammar, punctuation and spelling matter.

Quoting this extract is probably a breach of the copyright laws (or that's what Backspace would have me believe) but I think I'll risk it.

Backspace also offers a selection of articles by other leading lights. There is M.J. Rose, of course -- she gets everywhere. Ethan Ellenberg has an interesting piece about impulse buying. There's an interview with 'John Case' which makes the point that if you want a big commercial success you have to aim at those people who are right at the margin in terms of reading abililty -- those who often struggle to finish a book of any kind. And then there's Gerard Jones, who gets to do his usual party piece on advice to writers. If you haven't read yet it you should. Gerard is a one-off and I admire him enormously.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Deja read

The Publishers Lunch newsletter yesterday provided a fresh insight into an old story. It's the one about an author with a self-published book who hits the big time. I'm getting awfully bored with stories of this kind, because they ignore the fact that for every self-published book that sells a few copies, say 200, there are 10,000 self-published books which sell 3 copies. And if it's not done through a print-on-demand system, the authors have a lot of books in their garage.

Anyway, it seems there's a man in America, Michael Stadther, who has self-published A Treasure Trove and has sold, allegedly, 100,000 copies with 300,000 in print. The gimmick with this one is that the book provides clues to the whereabouts of 12 hidden gold tokens which entitle those who find them to 12 jewel-encrusted creatures (a tortoise with emeralds stuck on its back?).

Oh, and the key factor behind the book's success is that the author has invested $2 million in creating the jewels and producing the books.

So there you are. For a self-published author, achieving success is quite simple. All you have to do is invest $2 million. Can't imagine why I didn't think of that.

Publishers Lunch also gives a link to a profile of Dean Koontz in the Los Angeles Times. You have to register to read it so I didn't bother, because (judging by the Lunch summary) there is nothing in it that I don't know already. But the point I want to make here is that Koontz has achieved his massive success at a price.

His habits are said to verge on the obsessive-compulsive. He never flies anywhere and hardly ever takes a vacation. He doesn't use email or the internet because they might distract him from his work. He writes pretty much all day every day. He edits his work repeatedly.

And so on. Much as I love the writing world, this does seem to me to be a bit excessive. Should you be interested in the Koontz phenomenon (and for me the phenomenon is more interesting than his books), you can discover how he got to be where he is today by reading Katherine Ramsland's biography of him. It provides quite a few valuable insights into the workings of the publishing industry.

Finally, yet another story about a first-time author who hits it big. Yawn, yawn. This one is in the Daily Mail. It concerns a man who took 30 years to write his book, discovered that he had cancer, and decided that he had better get a move on. Apparently there was a 'frenzied telephone auction' for the rights -- these auctions always are frenzied, aren't they? -- and John Murray paid £500,000 for what is said to be 'an extraordinary first novel'. For £500,000 I would have thought it needed to be a bit more than extraordinary.

All these 'first-time author hits it big' stories are utterly ridiculous. In the first place, no publisher with any brain between his ears should pay big money for an untested talent. It just doesn't make any sense. And the fact that it happens merely demonstrates the fundamentally foolish nature of the decision-making in this great industry of ours. And in the second place, what sort of sense does it make to release details of the payment? Sensible industries boast about how much income is generated by their product; publishers boast about how much they've paid for it.

And by the way, if any of these stories inspires you to sit down and write a novel and then publish it yourself, just reflect on the fact that 54 people in the UK were struck by lightning last year (report in the Times a couple of days ago). It happens, but mercifully not very often. Similarly, some writers do occasionally, through an act of God, make more than tuppence-ha'penny out of something they've written. But it doesn't happen often, and you can be fairly certain it won't happen to you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Douglas Adams: The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul

While wandering aimlessly round the local library (as you do) I came across The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams. Which I have now read.

Adams died in 2001, aged 49, and he is, or was, a Big Name, at least in England. You can find a biography here. As a writer he was, I suppose, in the business of scifi-fantasy-humour, and by and large he was pretty good at it.

Adams's first success was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which began life in 1978 as a series for BBC Radio 4. It was subsequently turned into several bestselling novels, a TV series, a record album, a computer game and several stage adaptations. The whole thing will shortly get a new lease of life, because a movie version is due for release in May.

As for Teatime -- well, it was first published in 1988, and I dare say it looked more original, exciting, and funny then than it does now. It's not dull, exactly, but one does get the feeling of having been here before. I doubt that Adams was ever highly original (though his publicity machine doubtless claimed so), but he was pretty sharp in his day. Since 1988, however, an awful lot of people have mined the same territory.

By the way, it seems that as recently as 1988, if Teatime is to be believed, it was impossible to get a pizza delivered in London.

Adams himself must have had a few doubts about his writing ability, because he was a notorious sufferer from writer's block. His attitude towards deadlines was apparently to ignore them. At his death he was said to be working on a book that was fifteen years overdue. In some quarters this is regarded as a mark of great talent. I regard it as a lack of professionalism.

Adams died within a week or two of another writer, Betty Neels. Betty was a Mills and Boon machine, turning out vast numbers of romances. I have a distinct memory, though I can't find any internet evidence to support it, that at the time I read a report somewhere pointing out that, in the year before her death, Betty had actually sold more books than Adams. But guess who got the obituaries in the Times, Guardian, et cetera. Yup.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Booker Prize and absolute nonsense

Companies that sponsor prizes do so chiefly, I suspect, to obtain cheap publicity. And in that regard the Man Booker company, sponsors of the (Man) Booker Prize for fiction, do better than most.

Last week, for instance, there were masses of stories (e.g. Telegraph and Guardian) just about the choice of a chairman for the judges, and whether the judges will actually read the whole of each book or not.

But that is not what I want to witter on about today. No, what I thought I would do is draw your attention to the merciless winner-take-all mechanism which accompanies this annual jamboree.

When you and I are faced with a book, and asked to say whether it is a masterpiece or an overblown piece of self-indulgent nonsense, there is no universally recognised scale against which we can measure the book and come to a clear conclusion. Judging a book is a matter of taste and sensibility, and you are likely to maintain that your taste and sensibility are superior to mine. (You are probably right, since my taste is notoriously vulgar.)

As far as the Booker Prize is concerned, it is safe to say that the choice of the ‘best’ book of the year is inevitably a matter of opinion rather than fact. And not even unanimous opinion. In almost every year there are press reports of disagreements among the judges, and in some years we hear of ‘compromise choices’ or the chairman’s casting vote. We also know that, in one particular case, the eventual winner was unusually ‘fortunate’.

In 2002 the winner of the Booker Prize was Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Many newspapers reports at the time told us that this book had been rejected by Faber, the firm which had published Martel’s earlier work; the book had also been turned down by at least five other major publishers. So if Canongate had not taken the book, it is likely that the manuscript would have remained in the author’s filing cabinet. Furthermore, if the book had been accepted by one of the bigger firms, it would not even have been entered for the Booker Prize in the first place, because the big firms (only allowed two nominations) have to enter their most famous authors; if they don’t, the famous authors are likely to go elsewhere.

The Life of Pi saga provides a beautifully clear demonstration of the random nature of decision-making in publishing. Here we have a book which was turned down for publication by numerous ‘good judges’. It was entered for the Booker Prize by a small firm which had no stronger candidates. And it so happened that the particular set of judges who were reading in 2002 happened to like it best. Or a majority of them did.

All rational observers will agree that Life of Pi, or any other Booker winner, cannot sensibly be described as the best book of the year in any absolute sense. The Life of Pi episode shows us, undeniably, that there might have been other books that year which were either not published at all or were published by big firms which were not able to submit them -- books which could, quite possibly, have found favour with the judges if they had been submitted. The most that can be said of the book which wins the Booker Prize is that it is the one which (of those presented for consideration) the judges liked the best.

But observe, please, what happens when the winner of the Booker Prize is announced (in any year). What happens is that the media, the critics, and the public, all behave as if there is some absolute sense in which the winner is the best book of the year. They act as if the book has been held up against a ruler, a universally agreed scale, and has been found, indisputably, and scientifically, to be ‘better’ than any other.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I was given a copy of the New York Review of Books, in which there was a lengthy review of the most recent Booker winner; the article it runs to 108 column inches. Similar things no doubt happen every year. And this ‘star treatment’ will be repeated in newspapers and magazines throughout the English-speaking world.

It is the winning novel, please note, which is treated in this way – not the runners-up; and certainly not the good books which were not submitted by their publishers; and definitely not the books which didn’t even make it into print. It is the winning author who will be interviewed on television, invited to writers’ conferences, and made the subject, in due course, of earnest PhD theses by bespectacled young people who can think of nothing better to do with their time than waste it by deconstructing a novelist’s prose. This is the winner-take-all mechanism in its most unforgiving form.

The runners-up, the non-shortlisted books, and the unpublished books, all those are losers who disappear from our sight, never to be heard of again. And yet we know, beyond doubt, that but for the workings of randomness, which favoured the winner and disfavoured the others, there might be one, ten, or a hundred other books which could, in different circumstances, have proved to be more enticing to the judges than did the eventual winner.

The winner-take-all mechanism in the book world is thus shown to be brutal, vicious, and deadly.

There is no point in complaining about it: it is just the way things happen; the world in general, and the book trade in particular, is unfair, unjust, and patently absurd in its workings. But all those who work in the book trade, in particular those who write and sell novels, need to be aware of this situation. And they need to ask themselves whether a business in which randomness is so powerful a factor in the distribution of rewards is a business which sensible people should allow themselves to be involved in.

Friday, January 21, 2005

More on McKeith, and whether you are what you say

On 11 August last year (see archives) I wrote a piece on Gillian McKeith. If you live in the UK, you can hardly have failed to notice that McKeith is the author of a book called You Are What You Eat, which has been a huge seller. She also had a show on Channel 4 last year, and the second series is now showing.

Basically, McKeith is presented to us as a 'nutritionist'. On the TV shows, she takes on a monstrously fat person, persuades them to eat some decent food for a change, instead of the fat-filled crap they've been cramming into themselves, and bingo -- they begin to look and feel a lot better. As TV shows go, and if you're feeling fairly comatose anyway, hers is a painless way to spend half an hour. You might even get the odd laugh or idea out of it.

What caught my attention last year was that McKeith was heavily labelled, on both book and TV, as 'Dr' McKeith. Now it so happens that I can claim that title too, by virtue of a PhD degree. I also have a daughter and a son-in-law who are medical doctors. I am therefore interested in people claiming the title 'Dr'. I tend to wonder where that person got the degree, and in what subject.

In her first TV series, McKeith frequently appeared in the traditional medical doctor's garb of white lab coat; she was also seen examining patient's abdomens, talking learnedly about the results of various scientific tests, and generally giving the impression (quite unintentionally, I'm sure) that she was your average medical doctor, graduated from one of the better UK universities. There was something about the whole deal, however, which gave me pause for thought. So on 11 August I took a look at what could be found out about Gillian McKeith on various internet sites.

What I found was not encouraging. I discovered that someone else had also been a tad suspicious, and Precautionary Tales had already published some serious doubts about the value of McKeith's qualifications. At best, her PhD was a degree obtained from an American college with no academic standing whatever. So, on 11 August, I blogged a piece about the learned Dr McKeith, suggesting that she might not, after all, be 'the world's leading nutritionist' as was once claimed on her web site.

Anyway, the second TV series has now been running for a couple of weeks, and I noticed that this time there is no mention whatever of the 'Dr' title. She is referred to as 'Ms' McKeith. The white coat is less in evidence, and the male doctor who presents the test results definitely is referred to as 'Dr'. So, just by way of interest, I thought I would take a look at what information is available about McKeith's academic standing now, five months after my original search.

Boy oh boy. I did worry, just a little, that I might have been the teensiest bit unfair to McKeith. I didn't actually accuse her of pretending to be a medical doctor when she ain't, which would be a criminal offence, but I came close, and I did think that I might, perhaps, hear from her lawyers. I needn't have worried. Turns out that I was a perfect gentleman compared with some.

On 12 August, Ben Goldacre wrote a column in The Guardian in which he took McKeith apart, brick by brick. Her PhD, he reveals, comes from a college which is 'a non-accredited correspondence course, which is not recognised by the US secretary for education for the purpose of educational grants.' He went on to question the remainder of her 'scientific' qualifications and claims.

A week later, having received some protests from fans, Goldacre went further, and showed that some of McKeith's pronouncements on scientific matters are pure gibberish. 'She is,' he concluded, ' a menace to the public understanding of science, and anyone who gives her a platform should be ashamed of themselves.'

Others are equally unimpressed. A site called 'The view from number 80' published a piece about her which has lots of links to McKeith's critics. Spiked says bluntly that McKeith's dietary recommendations are 'pure quackery'.

McKeith's own website, by the way, has the address, and it still refers to her, in large letters as 'Dr Gillian McKeith (PhD)'.

Perhaps most cruel of all are those commentators who point out that this woman of 45, an expert on nutrition, looks about 60. Dear me.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

News updates: WHS, Penguin

The Times this morning has quite a lot to say about WH Smith. Mike Verdin has a piece, presumably based on what WHS says about itself, which reveals that the firm had a relatively poor Christmas, with sales down by 1% compared with the same period last year. However, the store has apparently been looking at its margins, and has concentrated on goods which make more money; as a result, high-street profitability is substantially ahead. Book sales fell, but reduced reliance on promotions meant that margins soared. Allegedly.

Reduced reliance on promotions? You could have fooled me. I was in my local WHS earlier this week and a member of staff was busy putting up posters which offered all kinds of cut-price deals for books. As I watched this lady at work, I was much taken with the view that WHS really don't have any faith in books. The impression you get from these money-off tempters is that WHS regard books as cheapo crap. And if you get that feeling from a shop, why would you want to buy anything?

Elsewhere in the Times, Patience Wheatcroft, the business editor also looks at the WHS situation. She approves of what the CEO, Kate Swann, has done, but says that 'an application of common sense does not mean that there is a rosy future ahead for WH Smith.' She highlights the fact that WHS is caught between the specialist booksellers on the one hand and the supermarkets on the other.

Meanwhile The Independent reports (link supplied by that Penguin have refused to make a general payment to all their authors for sales lost as a result of last year's warehouse failure. But they will, it seems, consider claims from individual authors who believe that they have a case. The Indie also reports that Penguin's sales in the US were down last year, which some observers ascribe to a switch towards non-fiction reading, an area in which Penguin is traditionally not so strong.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

C.J. Sansom: Dissolution

Dissolution is the author's first novel; and, if we assume that he hasn't written anything else under another name, it's an unusually good start. Not many writers can get most things right at the first attempt, but Sansom has managed it.

The book is a historical whodunit, set in the reign of Henry VIII, when Thomas Cromwell is the King's right-hand man. Cromwell was actually running the country while Henry posed as ruler; and as head of the Church, of course.

You are likely to find the story somewhat puzzling, I suspect, if you don't know anything about the history of England at this time. And it will also help if you are interested in the Christian religion and the various schools of thought within it. Subject to that, Dissolution is a gripping read. At 390 pages I thought it might be a bit too long, but it held my attention throughout.

The protagonist, who tells the story as a first-person account, is the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. He is sent by Cromwell to the monastery at Scarnsea, to find out why Cromwell's previous commissioner got his head chopped off. He also has the job of persuading the Abbot to sign over his monastery and all its wealth to the King.

Needless to say, Shardlake eventually succeeds in all these things, and the series apparently continues in Dark Fire, which I have yet to read. Meanwhile, Dissolution is recommended.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Ursula K. Le Guin: Steering the Craft

In 1996 Ursula K. Le Guin ran a workshop for writers. Subsequently she turned the workshop material into a book, Steering the Craft; the subtitle is 'Exercises and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew.' In other words, this is a writer's how-to book.

Just in case you don't know, Ursula K. Le Guin is a well known author in what we have to call, I suppose, the fantasy cum scifi field. She has published some sixteen novels, eight collections of short stories, and lots of other stuff, so she is well qualified to offer advice.

So far so good. The book was recommended to me by an established writer who told me that it contains the most lucid explanation of the use of point of view in fiction that he had ever come across. And indeed chapters seven and eight do cover point of view rather well. I have to say, however, that I prefer my own explanation of this subject, which I published in this blog in five parts from 4 to 10 November 2004 (see archives). But other readers may find Ms Le Guin's explanation preferable. It's all a matter of taste. Either way, the use of viewpoint is something that a writer has to master, and it sure ain't simple.

As the subtitle tells us, Steering the Craft is intended for use either by individuals or by writers' groups, with or without a formal teacher. I have never been keen on writers' groups myself, and those who share my prejudice will derive comfort from the introduction. Here the author tells us: 'One can attend many writing workshops and be a member of many peer groups and yet get no closer to finding one's voice as a writer than one might do working alone in silence.' Amen to that.

As for the overall shape of the book -- well, there are ten chapters on various aspects of the writer's craft. In each, a short introduction to the topic is given by the author. There then follow extracts from the prose work of assorted famous writers, such as Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and so forth. And finally there are practice exercises which can be undertaken by the tyro writer who is keen to develop her skills. Suggestions are made for discussion by those working in groups.

There is no doubt that Ursula has a smart way with words. 'Prose writers,' she tells us, 'are mostly interested in life and commas.' And later, re the notion that the only good sentence is a short sentence: 'This is true for convicted criminals.'

Despite these rays of light, I have to confess that, overall, I was not too thrilled by this book. But that is probably because I am old, grumpy, male, and English; and I am resistant to people who suggest that writers should do exercises. If I was young, keen, ambitious, female, and living in sunny California, I would probably think Steering the Craft was terrific.

You'll just have to try it and see.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Pro-Ams in the worlds of writing and publishing

The Long Tail, mentioned on Friday, contains a link to a report issued late last year by Demos, a UK-based independent think tank. The title of the report is The Pro-Am Revolution.

In this report, Pro-Ams are defined as amateurs who make a significant commitment of time and effort to some interest or area of activity; more importantly, they are people who produce work which is of a fully professional standard.

In the past, unpaid volunteers have made professional-level contributions to many charitable activities, such as the lifeboat service, the Samaritans, and care of the elderly. But nowadays enthusiasts are also making significant contributions in a host of other areas, such as astronomy and software: indeed Pro-Am programmers who are part of the ‘open source’ movement are said to be providing the only real challenge to Microsoft’s dominance of the personal computing market.

I can't say that I am overwhelmed by the conclusions of the Demos report, which include the proposal that the British government should invest in people’s hobbies as a way to build communities. However, the report did make me realise that the Pro-Am presence is highly noticeable in the worlds of writing and publishing.

There are undoubtedly some less than wonderful amateur writers, but there are also quite a number who are every bit as professional as those who are 'successful'. Many capable writers who would dearly love to be full-time professionals are unable to achieve that ambition because of the massive competition. They simply can't get a mainstream publisher, or even an agent, to take them on. So they content themselves instead with writing a blog, or publishing their own work through one of the many channels now available, such as ezines or POD books.

The converse, I suspect, is also true in the realm of publishing. One might reasonably say that, just as there are many amateur writers who work to professional standards, so there are many full-time employees in publishing who are working to amateur standards. Eric de Bellaigue's book, British Book Publishing as a Business, reviewed at length last week, provides evidence.

Should you wish to read the whole of the Demos report (some 70 pages), you can download a free copy.

Friday, January 14, 2005

The Long Tail

Over the past few days I have begun to see references to The Long Tail -- without quite knowing what it was. Today, Publishers Lunch gives me an explanation.

The Long Tail is the title of a blog by the editor of Wired, Chris Anderson. It describes itself as a public diary on the way to a book. Apparently Anderson's work in progress began as an article in Wired in October, was sold as a book proposal to Hyperion in December, and is continuing, sort of, on the blog.

Anderson offers us several definitions of the long tail, and some of his readers offer more. But here's one that I like: 'The Long Tail is about the economics of abundance -- what happens when the bottlenecks that stand between supply and demand in our culture start to disappear and everything becomes available to everyone.'

I like that definition because it hints at the possibility that the current plague of the book world -- the winner-take-all mechanism -- might one day disappear. To the great advantage of most writers if not publishers and booksellers.

The idea, basically, is that online retailing is allowing customers to explore their own tastes in ways hitherto not available. And what they find, as they continue to explore, is that they actually enjoy all kinds of weird stuff which they hardly knew existed -- because it isn't available on main-channel TV stations or supermarket bookshelves. This leads on to the idea that the sum of expenditure on all these little niche markets (i.e. the long tail) can equal or exceed the value of the heavily hyped blockbusters. And this holds good in all sorts of areas: TV, video, books, et cetera.

It's an interesting idea, and Anderson's blog is well worth a read. As editor of Wired he seems to be mightily well connected, with access to high-powered people from whom he can get supporting data. There are also lots of links to other stuff in the same line.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

M.R. James

M.R. James is an interesting writer. As far as fiction is concerned, he never wrote anything except short stories, and he only published 30 of them; yet on the strength of these he made a remarkable name for himself.

The stories originally appeared in four volumes, the first in 1904 and the last in 1925; and they were all, loosely speaking, ghost stories. In fact, the term 'ghost stories' does not seem to me to be quite suitable. Stories of the supernatural might be a better description. And some of them might be called horror stories, though none of them is just plain disgusting, as some modern horror stories are (to my taste, at least).

M.R. James died in 1936, but his work is still in print. The Wordsworth edition of the collected stories (Ghost Stories) is dead cheap, even in the hardcover version, and I suspect that the print is larger in the hardcover than in the paperback.

As for the quality of the stories.... Well, they all reflect the fact that the author was a distinguished scholar. Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, he became director of the Fitzwilliam museum. He was later Provost of King's College and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University.

Not surprisingly, given this background, the stories nearly all involve bookish men; old churches, libraries and cathedrals feature heavily. The stories were written in an age when the class system was much more rigid than it is today, and several of the stories are set in earlier times still; so the servants and the country people who appear as extras, so to speak, all tend to speak in quaint accents and with the occasional malapropism.

Read as a sequence, from the first to the last, the stories have a certain sense of sameness. But it is as pointless to complain about this as it would be to complain that one episode of a soap opera is similar to another. I for one kept thinking that I would just read one more, until in fact I had read them all. The very last story in the collection, as one reader on Amazon points out, begins as a comedy and ends so blackly that few horror film-makers would care to tackle it as it stands.

Many of these stories, incidentally, were originally written for the entertainment of friends, and were read to small audiences, at around Christmas time, in a room lit only by candlelight. Such circumstances would no doubt make them creepier than ever.

Towards the end of his life, James was asked whether he really believed in ghosts. 'Depend upon it!' he said. 'Some of these things are so, but we do not know the rules!'

As you would expect, given this author's fame, there is much on the web about him. The Ghosts and Scholars page provides a useful starting point if you wish to know more. There is also a web site authorised by the James estate.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The right attitude and the right stuff

It is not often that I come across a blog or a web site that I can unreservedly recommend, but here are three (or four) links which I encourage you to follow up.

Book Angst, run by Mad Max, has been around a while, but on 6 January it carried a valuable and enlightening interview with a paperback writer who has quite a few names but is known here as Lynn Viehl. Very much worth reading.

Ms Viehl also has her own blog, Paperback Writer, which is the best blog I have looked at in a long time. I particularly enjoyed the piece from 8 January. Let's hope she doesn't get too busy to keep it going. This lady has the right attitude.

And finally, Backspace, which describes itself as a writer's resource, has had the good sense to commission two articles (so far) on publishing in the twenty-first century from Richard Curtis. Part I can be found here, and Part II here. Part III will presumably be published soon. Mr Curtis is a long-established literary agent and a writer to boot, and he provides here one of the most lucid accounts of modern publishing developments that I have ever read.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Jim Kelly: The Fire Baby

Jim Kelly’s first book, The Water Clock, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey Award (for a first crime novel), which is a mark of some distinction. And his second book, The Fire Baby, is also a distinguished piece of work.

The setting is the Fen country in the east of England, and it helps, I suppose, if the reader is familiar with that territory, as I am. It’s a flat, gloomy, deserted sort of area, with an inbred population, and Kelly captures its flavour rather well: it can be somewhat gloomy and depressing.

The protagonist of the book is Philip Dryden, a journalist who works for a local paper and also freelances for the nationals. This gives him plenty of opportunity to poke his nose into odd places and investigate mysteries.

As for the story – well the story involves the past history of a family. It reminds me a little of the Lew Archer stories of some thirty years ago: books which seem to have largely dropped out of sight, though they are in print.

The Fire Baby is warmly recommended to those who enjoy English crime fiction. But one word of warning: not only the setting but also the story are a bit on the dark side. Jim Kelly is not a Colin Watson; there ain’t no smiles here.

And another warning. If you aren’t prepared for it, the very last sentence of this book might hit you hard and even make you blub. It nearly did me, for a start. I don’t know what’s happening to me in my old age; I must be getting soft.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Updates on earlier stories

The weekend brought two newspaper articles from the Daily/Sunday Telegraph stable which repeat facts and ideas that have been stated here more than once, but which are well worth reading for the additional details that they supply. (Links provided by book2book.)

First, Luke Johnson, an experienced businessman who is currently Chairman of Channel 4, gives us his take on publishing (based on his one-time ownership of a publishing company). It is, he says, 'a barely rational industry'. Authors and publishers alike are poorly paid. Yup. No argument there.

And Guy Dennis provides a highly detailed report of the Penguin warehouse disaster. This tells us that the decision to proceed (with software systems which failed to work) was made at Pearson board level and involved both Dame Marjorie Scardino, the chief executive, and John Makinson, the head of Penguin.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Ezra Pound

A friend of mine, a bookish sort of man, died recently, and his widow has passed on to me a couple of his possessions which she thought might be of interest; as indeed they are.

One of these items is a handwritten copy of a poem by Ezra Pound; copied out, I suspect, by one of my friend's pupils. I won't quote all of it, because if I did I would run the risk of being beaten up in some dark alley by the copyright police, but the final five lines are as follows:

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco shop,
or install me in any profession
Save this damn'd profession of writing
where one needs one's brains all the time.

It turns out that the title of this poem is 'The Lake Isle', and I must say I found it quite amusing. What is more, it is the second readable poem by Pound that I have come across in recent weeks: the first being one on Venice, contained in Michelle Lovric's excellent anthology, Venice -- Tales of the City. If this goes on I may have to break the habit of a lifetime and start reading poetry on a serious basis.

Should you wish to read the full version of the Pound poem you can find it here. I know very little about the man, but there are of course lots of pages about him on the web, including a brief biography. I do remember him being released from hospital in 1958. In that year I met a young man who was working behind the counter in a fast-food joint in Times Square but who was, he assured me, a writer really; to be precise, a poet. He was considerably exercised by what he saw as the persecution of a great man.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

British book publishing as a business -- part 6

Final thoughts

Eric de Bellaigue’s British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, published by the British Library in 2004, is a remarkable book. But it is not an easy read; being information-dense, it is downright stodgy in places. Nevertheless, anyone who is serious about wanting to understand the UK book trade needs to read it carefully, pencil in hand.

The many strengths of the book have, I hope, been fully explored, so here are one or two shortcomings.

The index, I am sorry to say, is well nigh useless. Look up authors, writers, or royalties, and you will find nothing; perhaps because there is little about them in the text. But you won’t do any better with literary agents, or agents. Neither will you find the US Robinson Patman Act; or supermarkets; or discounts; or bungs.

Although the book is peerless in terms of its examination of publishing, there is still a lack of comparative data, both within the industry and between publishing and other industries. How does publishing compare with, say, advertising, or television, in terms of its return on capital, average salary, pension provision? We are not told.

As noted above, there is little in the book about the onlie begetters of books, namely the authors. And even less about their remuneration. This is entirely in line with publishing practice generally.

It is a fact that, for well over a hundred years, book publishers have been blessed by the existence of a huge number of mugs, suckers, and assorted fuzzy thinkers, who have been willing to work for a year or two, to produce a full-length manuscript on spec, without a penny piece to show for it. These would-be authors then despatch their ms to a publisher, who in a noticeable number of cases proceeds to lose it; but even when he keeps track of it, it is only to send the thing back, after a modest delay of six months or so, with a scrappy piece of paper saying ‘Sorry – not quite what we are looking for.’

So shabby and disgraceful is the industry’s treatment of its authors that it is a small miracle, if truth be told, that publishers (and agents) are not daily visited by a small gang of infuriated slush-pile rejects, brandishing iron bars at best and sawn-off shotguns at worst, demanding to see ‘that son of a bitch who wrote this letter.’

Mr Eric de Bellaigue, in common with everyone else who works in publishing, takes these people for granted. But it is ultimately the skill of the writer which determines whether a book will turn into one of those monster hits on which everything now hinges, or not.

It is my distinct impression that, despite the multi-million pound advances that we hear about, the really big author-names in trade publishing are still under-remunerated. And as Jason Epstein has pointed out, the brand-name authors really don’t need publishers anyway. They need printing, publicity and distribution services, to be sure. But there are other places to get those besides Clapham & Irons. If, at some point in the future, the brand-name authors desert the big-name publishers, some observers are going to think that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving group of people.

In another place (page 132 of The Truth about Writing, to be precise), I declared that the nature of British book publishing over the last 50 or 60 years could be summed up in the two-word phrase ‘amateur night’. Eric de Bellaigue has produced nothing to persuade me that this description is unfair or unreasonable.

Of course amateurs have much to recommend them: they are enthusiastic, willing to work hard for little or no recompense; and their knowledge often puts that of ‘professionals’ to shame. But at the end of the day there is nothing (in my estimation) to beat a fully qualified, well trained, hard-nosed professional. And that is what British book publishing, all too often, lacks.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

British book publishing as a business -- part 5

Chapter 10 continued: Current trends and issues


Bellaigue suggests that the average cost to an author, of publishing a book himself, is in the region of £7,000 to £8,000. And if you want a Rolls-Royce version then I guess that is correct. But in fact you can comfortably publish a book for somewhere between 1% and 10% of that sum, depending on how much you do yourself and whether you already have a computer, printer, and appropriate software.

Those who offer self-publishing services to authors who would otherwise remain unknown are naturally keen to point out that many writers who are now household names have at one time or another dabbled in self-publishing. This ignores, of course, the fact that, for every self-published writer who makes even a modest impression on the market, there are at least 1,000 and possibly 10,000 who succeed in selling no more than 3 copies. And who have a big pile of books in the garage.

Venture capital

The term ‘venture capital’ is now more or less interchangeable with ‘private equity’, and Bellaigue tells us that, typically, a private-equity group is looking for a 20%+ return on capital over the life of each investment.

As far as publishing is concerned, surely we have enough evidence by now to know that such a return is flat-out impossible, except as the result of some enormous fluke. And investors do not normally care to rely on flukes: by and large, a proven track record is preferable.

Nevertheless, Bellaigue presents us with some evidence that private-equity investors are willing to consider publishing projects. I have no reason to doubt the evidence, but I suspect that, if publishing is chosen, it is chosen in the same spirit that one might invest the last 10% of one’s own portfolio in something highly speculative. The thinking would be, This is worth a punt. I might lose all my money, but there’s a long shot that it might work.

Not surprisingly, investments of this nature tend to be in publishing firms which deal in non-fiction and professional specialisations. Fiction, Bellaigue reminds us, ‘is notoriously cash-absorbent and subject to unpredictable successes/failures.’


Bellaigue’s section on valuations is technical and is really for the benefit of bankers and high-level strategic thinkers. Most of us are not likely to be faced with the problem of how much to pay for an existing publishing company.

It is worth being reminded, however, that publishers’ balance sheets are 'notoriously opaque in respect of debtors, which may be shielding unearnable advances, and stocks, which can be housing unsaleable books, both of which have a direct bearing on the quality of reported profits.’

Given that profits tend to be very much the name of the game these days, it must be supposed that there is strong pressure for the financial officers of any but the smallest private companies to massage the figures (within the law, naturally) so as to put the most favourable possible interpretation upon the outcome of the financial year. Periodically, the CEO, or some other representative of any publishing company in the public eye, will issue a statement that this year Clapham & Irons have done jolly well, and have achieved a 10% return on capital, or whatever. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they? On the optimistic assumption that the CEO and the chief financial officer of each company have at least some understanding of their firm’s accounts, and if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there are 10 major companies in UK trade publishing, then there may be as many as 20 people in the UK who really understand whether there is any money in the book business or not. I suspect not.

However, as Bellaigue reminds us, the City of London is a funny place. From time to time some otherwise sane people can be persuaded to invest substantial sums in a hole in the ground in Australia, on the strength of a third-hand report from a bloke in a pub that there might be a diamond pipe in said hole. And in the not-so-distant past there were plenty of people willing to assume that internet retail sales would take off like a rocket, at a time when it was fairly obvious to anyone who had actually tried to buy anything over the net that the time was not yet ripe. So it is not altogether impossible to find otherwise hard-headed entrepreneurs who are prepared to pay silly prices for publishing firms which are perceived as, God help us all, ‘glamorous’. (Examples: Reed buying Octopus; American On Line buying Time Warner.) Yes I know that such purchases and ideas make you and me laugh until we feel sick, but Bellaigue tells us that ‘there is a newsworthiness about trade publishing which sets it apart from all other parts of the industry.’

Oh dear, oh dear. It will end in tears, mark my words.

Final thoughts tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

British book publishing as a business -- part 4

Chapter 9: William Collins

William Collins was a firm which was founded in 1819 and remained under family control (mainly run by a succession of men called, oddly enough, William Collins) until 1979. Today, under the name HarperCollins, it is part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire.

This chapter epitomises, perhaps above any other, the enormous amount of research that Eric de Bellaigue has undertaken in the writing of this book. His knowledge is impressive and, I suspect, unmatched in this particular industry. Christopher Gasson is perhaps Bellaigue’s only rival.

The Collins story is interesting but there is nothing of particular consequence for us to note here. The story told is the now familiar one: independent family firm becomes part of big conglomerate.

Chapter 10: Current trends and issues

Conglomeration and literary standards

‘The correlation between literary excellence and profitability is not necessarily high’, the author reminds us. Well yes. The author might also have added that the correlation between ‘literary excellence’, as defined by the finest brains of our time, and general all-round readability is not high either; in fact, as far as this particular commentator is concerned, it varies more or less inversely.

Bellaigue’s conclusion in this section of the book is that ‘the evidence, limited though it is, does not support those critics who view the withdrawal of support for new fiction as a necessary consequence of greater concentration in publishing.’

Hmm. Well, maybe. The fact is, of course, that the choice of ‘new fiction’ from the various slush piles is more or less random. No one, to repeat a well-worn statement for the umpteenth time, was able to recognise the original Harry Potter ms as an investment worth perhaps a million times its weight in gold; and The Life of Pi was rejected by Faber (normally thought of as good judges of the literary stuff) when they had published the author’s previous book.

Profitability of the larger groups

Here we have further evidence that authors, and their books, are either huge or they are a waste of shelf space. There is increasing concentration of sales effort and publicity budget on the chosen few; some of which turn out to be a ‘good’ choice, in the sense that you can fool some of the people some of the time, and some turn out to be duds. As often as not, the firm’s bacon is saved by the book bought for tuppence-ha’penny which suddenly takes off due to word of mouth.

We also learn that there are genuine advantages in scale, not the least of which are significant reductions in printing bills due to increased muscle when it comes to negotiating prices.

Independent trade publishers

The experience of Fourth Estate demonstrates that fiction-based trade publishing is a cash-hungry business. By contrast, when Andrew Franklin set up Profile Books, he wisely observed that ‘most small independent publishers who publish fiction make a loss – not something I would wish to pursue.’

The fiction business, Bellaigue tells us, is troubled by twin scourges: speculative advances and competitive discounts. The former is, in my view, self-inflicted, while the latter is inevitable given that, as we noted earlier, power has passed out of the hands of publishers and into the hands of the retailers. In particular, the supermarkets are totally ruthless.

Bellaigue tells us that Faber has ‘a slush pile of unusual quality’. Well, it is unusual only in the limited sense that anyone with a literary novel to sell, and, naturally, a very high opinion of their own talent, will hawk it to Faber. Whether that translates into books which any normal person would want to read, let alone profits, is a different matter entirely. And besides, what proportion of Faber’s real slush pile (unsolicited submissions from non-agented writers) ever appears in print? 1 in 2,000, do you think?

Literary agents

Of the 161 firms of literary agents offering their services in 2003, 37% have been set up since the start of 1990.

Frankly, I don’t know how half of them make a living. And, according to Hilary Rubinstein, quoted earlier in the book, most of them make ‘a less decent living’ than those who work in publishing. Slim pickings indeed, then. The book business remains ideally suited to those who have private means.

Publishers have come to depend on literary agents to sort out their slush piles for them; it is now the agents, rather than publishers, who separate the just about possible from the oh my god. The effect of this has, of course, been to reduce publishers’ costs. The cost of the first round of book selection is now met by agents, which means, in effect, that it is met by the writers who are successful enough to generate income on which agents can earn a percentage.

It would be pleasing to be able to say (since it is so hard to say anything complimentary about publishers) that shifting the cost burden in this way (simply by refusing to read any ms unless offered by an agent) was a conscious and deliberate strategy, motivated by sheer cunning and commercial nous on the part of the publishers. Unfortunately I doubt whether it was. I suspect that it just more or less happened.

What is more, hardly anyone seems to have noticed that the cost of the first stage of the book-selection process has become, in effect, a tax on successful writers. Certainly I have never seen that fact pointed out in print by anyone other than myself. And if I was a big-time writer I think I might take rather a dim view of that. I might be asking my agent why I should pay for this process, and is it not possible for the agent to charge publishers a fee for selecting, on their behalf, books which are not a complete waste of an editor’s time?

Alternatively, and perhaps more realistically, should agents be charging writers a reading fee? To my knowledge only one firm of any standing does so: the Scott Meredith agency in New York. (The eponymous founder of the company was in 1997 named by Publishers Weekly as one of the movers and shakers of the industry over the previous 125 years; Morton Janklow was the only other agent so named.)

So, publishers have reduced their costs by eliminating the bulk of their slush-pile reading. Once again we are hampered by an absence of reliable data, but it seems unlikely that any of this saving has been passed on to authors. On the rare occasions when publishers are careless enough to let slip any information about what has happened to authors’ share of the book-sales income, over the two decades or so since conglomeration took off in earnest (and since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement), the pie-chart shows a sizeable reduction in the authors’ share. See, for instance, Tim Hely-Hutchinson’s article in The Author, Autumn 1998.

Nowadays agents are also, it seems, undertaking tasks, such as editing, which were previously the province of publishers. Again, this costs. Either agents are worse off – and I doubt that they are allowing that to happen – or the cost is once again being met by writers, through the percentage of their income which they pay to their agents.

More tomorrow.

Monday, January 03, 2005

British book publishing as a business -- part 3

Chapter 6

This chapter tells the story of the relatively brief life of a highly successful company. Octopus was founded in 1971 by Paul Hamlyn, one of the most famous entrepreneurs in UK publishing history. He sold the company in 1987, emerging with some £200m. For that reason alone the facts are worthy of close study by anyone who hopes to make serious money in the book business.

Another entrepreneur whose name crops up here is that of Robert Maxwell. And we are reminded, of course, that Maxwell was adept at fiddling the books. Though nothing like that could possibly happen today; naturally.

Chapter 7: Reed as a trade publisher

In 1987 Octopus was bought by Reed, and chapter 7 deals with the fortunes of that company. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Reed overpaid for Octopus, and neither the buyer nor the bought imprint did particularly well thereafter.

We are given here one of the few references to the role of authors in publishing, when we are told that ‘relations with authors require a light touch, otherwise damage can ensue. Sloppy, let alone inaccurate royalty statements can be hugely unsettling.’ Yes indeed. Authors are funny that way. They often have to write a complete book, for zero money, before anyone will even think of giving them a contract. Then, when the book is published, they only get paid every six months, and even then they have to wait until three months after the end of the half-year. And when there is the smallest error in their royalty statements they get all huffy on you. Well, that’s writers for you. Ungrateful beasts at the best of times.

The Reed story seems to me to be fairly typical of the shambolic, steer-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to publishing which is so typical of the UK book business. A process of centralisation was followed by decentralisation. The usual nonsense. Perhaps other industries provide equally bizarre management patterns, but I cannot speak of such from personal experience, and Bellaigue gives us no comparators.

Finally, Reed merged with Elsevier, in 1993, and some sort of rationalisation took place. Elsevier had at least had the sense to ‘shift out of low margin business such as printing and trade publishing, into high margin business, such as scientific journals and professional publishing.’

The overall moral of this chapter, however, is that there is money to be made in trade publishing, if you’re smart enough. Very few are.

Chapter 8: Chatto, Bodley Head, and Jonathan Cape

Chapter 8 covers the fate of three prestigious (in some eyes) literary firms. And it is clear that prestige has a curious hold, even today. If you seek examples of fuzzy thinking in UK publishing, this chapter is a promising source. We have, for example, the spectacle of a possible purchaser of Goliard Press remarking that ‘far from being profitable, the enterprise might well lose money for a time’, but it seemed a worthwhile purchase ‘in the cause of poetry.’ Which is all very well, I suppose, if you’re using your own money.

There is also a passing reference to the difficulty of comparing like with like in the publishing business. Cape, Chatto, and the Bodley Head all had different year-ends, and ‘to some extent accounting practices.’ The importance of the latter should not be underestimated, I gather. I seem to remember that a peculiar, though legal, method of writing off the production costs of books was one of the factors which led to the demise of Element.

Another insight is provided by Bellaigue’s remark that ‘in most publishing houses, the leading lights are intent on finding a Salman Rushdie’ rather than in cutting a couple of days off delivery times. Once again, glamour is confused with effectiveness.

Yet another such example is provided by Bellaigue’s account of the refurbishment of Number 32 Bedford Square, which was ‘grand and lavish’. It led, unsurprisingly, to trouble. ‘The embellishments that were undertaken were hardly calculated to send amber lights flashing. Furthermore, the number of people within the group who were in a position to recognize the significance of any such flashes had they occurred was severely limited.’ In other words, the bosses all had exquisite taste in literature but none of them knew how to read a set of accounts.

Bellaigue quotes Carmen Callil: ‘People who make money in literary publishing are rare’; and Tom Maschler: ‘Literary trade publishing is doomed to fail the profits tests of a quoted company.’ Both of which are surely obvious to anyone with any experience, but the obvious does not seem to deter people from trying. Over and over again.