Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Unoriginal thoughts

There are, I suspect, few original thoughts in publishing. But there is always someone reading a thought for the first time. So, just in case... here are a few things that you may not have heard or thought about before. has a link to an article by John Sutherland in the Guardian on Monday 31 January. This says much the same things that I said in my blog post on 24 January, namely that the system of literary prizes simply magnifies the winner-take-all mechanism which is highly destructive of writers' interests.

What happens when book X wins a major prize is that all the publicity, and consequently sales, centres upon that one book, leaving the rest out in the cold. As I pointed out only yesterday, in the US market last year, 200 books provided 10 per cent of the sales. In other words, you are either massive or you are nothing. (Same thing with actors, by the way.)

This blockbuster system does publishers and booksellers no harm at all, provided the stream of blockbusters is uninterrupted. But it is acutely damaging to writers, most of whom can't get published at all. Even if they do end up in print, sales are likely to be tiny.

Sutherland's article highlights the situation of Andrea Levy. Prior to winning the Orange Prize, last summer, her novel Small Island had sold 2,000 copies. Post Orange, and now with the Whitbread Book of the Year award too, she is a big-timer. The bookshops will pile her stuff high.

But... As Sutherland points out, and as I pointed out a week earlier, there is no sensible reason for supposing that Andrea Levy, excellent writer though she may be, is somehow streets ahead of everyone else on the shortlist for those two prizes -- or even for supposing that she is a better writer than those who never even made the shortlist. Different novels suit different folks. But that's not the way the system works.

Another link on is to an article by Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller. Jones draws attention to the fact that, in the UK, ownership of the big publishing firms has shifted from US-based conglomerates to European ones. The Germans, the French, and the British are now the contenders for ownership of any significant UK publishing companies. Random House, which within living memory was a proud and prestigious independent New York literary house, is now part of the German monster Bertelsmann! (Don't mention the war.) And Jones goes on to speculate whether these take-over kings might not soon begin to threaten to buy some of the more vulnerable US companies, such as Simon and Schuster.

Here again, this is not an original thought. Plenty of people have noticed it before. Some time back, beginning on 30 December, I wrote a lengthy review of Eric de Bellaigue's book British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s. After it appeared, Eric kindly wrote me a note. In it, he commented on the European take-over of great swathes of intellectual property which had once been American-owned, and said how surprised he was that the Americans seem to have accepted this quite calmly. Maybe the explanation lies in the fact that publishing is such a low-profit business that no one really cares very much who owns it.

Insofar as there is any money in publishing, it is to be found in the really dull bits, such as hymn books and textbooks. I am reminded of this by another link in to an article which claims that US college students are being charged too much for their textbooks.

This story is as old as the hills. Nearly twenty years ago I was a Fulbright Fellow at an American university, and this university had a bookshop the size of an aircraft hangar. When I first went into it I decided that it was the worst bookshop I had ever been into. The floor was bare concrete; the books were stacked in lines, on wooden pallets, still in the packets of 20 or 30, as loaded by the publisher. There was no attempt to make the place interesting or pleasant at all.

Weeks later I discovered how wrong I was. I realised by that time that American college teaching is heavily textbook orientated. Every student on a given course simply has to have at least one set book, and probably several. And some of these things cost (at 2005 prices) over $100 each. What this meant, at this 'badly managed' bookshop, was that it was generating some of the highest sales figures per square foot of floor space of any bookshop in America! See, it's not the glamorous bits that really make the money.

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