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.

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