Friday, January 06, 2006

Books, and writers, with long shelf lives

For many years I used to contact all the major UK publishers, at least once a year, and ask them to send me a copy of their latest catalogue. (I stopped doing this a few years ago.) Sometimes I got sent a catalogue, and sometimes I didn't. I wrote about these experiences in my post of 24 May 2004.

You can learn a great deal from publishers' catalogues. First of all, you find out what kind of books they are (presumably) looking for, given that they are now big on crime, or romance, or whatever. Secondly, you can sometimes see who the author's agent is. And you can occasionally find the names of key employees. And so forth.

If you keep the catalogue for two or three years, and then look back at it, you get a really good feel for what a difficult business this is. Books which were given a massive push, spread over the cover and two or three pages of the autumn catalogue, turn out to be books which disappeared without trace. And, conversely, that little nothing book which crept in rather apologetically on page 43....

Somewhere along the line, the Time Warner Book Group seem to have got it into their head that I need to be sent their complete stock list. And just a few days ago I got sent their latest. Now a complete stock list is not what I originally asked for (back in the mists of time). It's a dry as dust document. Simply a list showing author's name, title, ISBN, price -- and that's it. However, I discovered, looking at the latest edition, that there are interesting nuggets contained here.

Time Warner is the umbrella under which shelter a fair number of imprints. Little Brown is perhaps the biggest; then there's Virago (up-market women's stuff); Orbit (SF and fantasy); Abacus (literary fiction); and some niche imprints such as X Libris (erotica by and for women).

The stock list is arranged by subject, and it is noteworthy that, in a list running to some 80 pages, fiction in its various forms occupies nearly half the space. In the overall UK book market, fiction seems to amount to about 10% of the total of new books published each year, but its popularity is such that it constitutes about 30% of the number of books sold, producing about 25% of the total amount of money handed over by the customer. And while we're on the subject, let us note that fiction backlist sales -- i.e. sales of books which have been in print for some time -- typically amount to about 45% of a publisher's income. (All of these figures are very rough, but they're near enough for our purposes.)

The thing which really caught my eye, when prowling through this latest Time Warner stock list, is that some novelists have very substantial numbers of books in print. There are the obvious names, of course: Danielle Steel and Patricia Cornwell, for example. But there are also other, much less 'sexy' and well known names.

This second category of relatively unknown but steady sellers breaks down, for me, into two groups. There are those I've heard of, and those I've never heard of.

Among the names I am already familiar with, we have Emma Blair, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, E.V. Thompson, Margaret Yorke, and Elizabeth Taylor. Of the unknowns, just to give a couple, we have L.E. Modesitt Jr, and Evelyn Hood. What all these people have in common is that they don't get written about in the Times Lit. Supp., or any other highbrow journal which creates literary reputation. Neither are they given one-hour interviews on the telly by Lord Melvyn Bragg. No, these people don't get any of the glittering prizes which so attract the young. They just get read; and bought.

Let's take a look at some of these writers in more detail, beginning with Emma Blair. Well, for a start, Emma Blair is a bloke. Iain Blair, actually. And he writes what some would call women's fiction, or romantic fiction, but I've read a couple without feeling uncomfortable. They are mainstream, traditional stories, of ordinary working-class or middle-class folk, finding their way through life.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has written in several commercial genres, but for Time Warner she produces a family saga with the overall title of the Morland Dynasty: 28 volumes so far (and all, as I said earlier, still in print).

E.V. Thompson is also a he, and his novels have much in common with Emma Blair's. Margaret Yorke is chiefly a crime writer. And Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one) was selling nicely in the 1940s and 1950s but is still being read today.

As for the unknowns, L.E. Modesitt Jr turns out to be a science-fiction and fantasy author. And Evelyn Hood, as you've probably guessed (somehow the name sounds right, doesn't it?) goes in for family sagas.

I think the point of this little survey is already obvious, but here it is, spelt out in b and w. All these writers, some of them elderly and one of them gone these many years, produce intelligent, human, well crafted mainstream stories in the grand old tradition. None of them, take my word for it, specialise in The Novel as Metaphor. None of them loses much sleep over the fact that the TLS ignores them. But if they get a letter from a little old lady in Bournemouth, who says that she's had all their books out of the library, and when are they going to write any more, then they feel pretty damn pleased with themselves.

And rightly so.


Bernita said...

I collect Modesitt Jr.

Anonymous said...

This phenomenon is known as 'the long tail' and it is becoming far more obvious now the Internet makes it possible for people to buy the books (and CDs, etc) that they want rather than having to be content with the few on offer at the corner bookstore.

It staggers me that I can easily find a CD shop which will sell me a Supertramp album from 1981, but I can't go to any bookstore in the country and buy, say, The Sirian Experiments which won the Booker Prize that same year. When an industry ignores tens of thousands of proven best-sellers in their back catalogues in order to throw money at the latest ghost-written celebrity novel, they don't deserve to survive. And they won't.

I've been researching old detective stories for a new wiki (link from 'jon' above) and - along with the heartbreak of so many good books lost apparently forever - it's encouraging to see how many small-scale publishers are emerging to save this or that writer from obscurity. Couple this with the low-cost eBook distribution model and the future looks a little brighter after all.

Dee Jour said...

But if they get a letter from a little old lady in Bournemouth, who says that she's had all their books out of the library, and when are they going to write any more, then they feel pretty damn pleased with themselves.

This is perhaps one point that writing texts, or 'tip' guides, avoid. This is what distinguishes the writer (who is published, in any way or form, whether in the NY Best seller list or a smaller catalogue) from the whinger of the modern era who thinks of dollar signs as they type.

It's the take home message any aspiring writer needs to cement in their mind because it's the everyday person who matters, not whether or not some haughty editor of XYZ Times thinks because the majority don't have time to read every review unless they're in the industry (most of the time).