Over-publishing: so little time, so much to read
Evening Standard 2002
Publishers will say anything to get an author between the sheets of their catalogues. But once the contract is signed, that seductive promise of a gold-plated publicity campaign all too often fades into thin air and the writer is lucky to receive a meagre handful of reviews before the edition is pulped.
Anthony Cheetham, a former powerhouse of British publishing, would refer cynically to this process as "privishing". It is the harsh reality for the majority of authors, because so few of the 126,000 new books published every year sell enough copies to register in the top 5,000 titles used to compile the charts.
Celebrity does not guarantee publicity. Earlier this year, Celia Brayfield, author of the mega-selling Pearls, published her latest work, Mr Fabulous and Friends, the second in a series of novels set in the fictional district of Westwick, based on the London district of Chiswick. In 1999 its predecessor, Getting Home, was launched with a party at Waterstone’s, Chiswick, where Brayfield’s family, friends and fans scooped up 200 copies.
No such luck for Mr Fabulous and Friends. Four years after Chiswick, the rules of book marketing had changed. Without a national promotion, agreed at Waterstone’s head office and paid for by Brayfield’s publisher, Time Warner, the novel could not appear in any of the retailer’s prime spots. Not even for its launch. "Every one of the 80 people who came to the launch was wandering around the shop looking for the book," she recalls. "They thought it bonkers that they couldn’t find it."
The sheer volume of titles published each month means that the odds are stacked against any unbacked book making it on to the shop floor, as one WH Smith buyer explains. "We are shown between 1,000 and 1,200 a month and we take 250 of those, so there are 800-plus titles that we do not take every month – and there are 800-plus disappointed authors."
Publishers’ marketing budgets are skewed in favour of so-called "bungs" to book chains. When Asda demands as much as £25,000 and WH Smith £10,000 to put a title under its customers’ noses, it is unsurprising that only a handful of hot sellers gets through.
Publishers know that many titles on their lists will receive no publicity and few sales. So why publish them in the first place?
Terence Blacker blames privishing on publishers’ cynicism. "There are definitely books that are taken on by publishers to make up numbers," he says. "Sometimes when you meet publishers and say to them that you have heard that they have taken on soandso’s new book, you can see in the publisher’s eyes that the book is f****d."
It is a shock how early a book’s fate is sealed. The size of the advance is often the first indication that a title will be privished. Anything over £100,000 puts publishers under pressure to make the book work – and in the vicious circles of publishing no one wants a high-profile failure tarnishing their reputation.
Office politics also exert an invidious influence on the decision to promote one title at the expense of another. Some acquiring editors have more clout than others. "In some of the biggest houses there are these gods and goddesses who dictate what books get attention, and it is always their own," says one agent.
"It depends on your editor," confirms Orange-shortlisted author Maggie Gee, who moved from Flamingo, part of the leviathan HarperCollins, to the tiny independent Saqi following the death of her editor, Jonathan Warner. "Jonathan was brilliant and had the power to push your book inhouse-It was also like that with Robert McCrum when he was at Faber." When an author’s editor jumps ship, whoever inherits their work is unlikely to champion it with the same passion – and inevitably it slips down the priority list.
But editorial ego clashes are not the only factor behind the blight of privishing. Chainstore buyers have egos, too, and they have begun to assert power over suppliers. It is a corrosive practice that will undermine the whole book trade, claims Jonny Geller, joint managing director of literary agency Curtis Brown, whose clients include Hari Kunzru and Howard Jacobson. "Traditional publishing works if the trust is intact," he argues.
Geller is angry that wet-faced buyers at the biggest names on the high street, eager to make a name for themselves, are ignoring "designer name" literary imprints like Faber, Cape and Hamish Hamilton.
"What is happening time and time again," says Geller passionately, "is that one or two individuals in retail head offices are saying, ‘I know better and I want to be the one responsible for discovering a book’." Without large orders from retailers, a book is doomed to be privished.
Even big bucks and a retail boost are no protection from failure, as attested by a list of expensively marketed dead ducks from Edwina Currie’s Diaries to Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog. Readers’ taste remain resistant to hype and sometimes rescue the previously privished from the bottom of the pile.
THIS year has seen triumphs for small houses such as Profile with Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Atlantic with the Bookershortlisted The Good Doctor, by Damon Galgut, which enjoyed critical and commercial success without huge marketing spends. Faber’s Booker-winning Vernon God Little had a tiny budget compared to its conglomerate-backed competitors, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal.
Graham Swift’s The Light of Day landed from planet Penguin with a big advance, but its impact on the book charts has been minimal compared to Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Initially published by tiny Polygon, law professor McCall Smith’s book has ridden the Top 10 all year on the evangelical fervour of its fans.
No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency shows how books can escape privishing. The secret is passion, as Maggie Gee discovered with her Orangeshortlisted The White Family, published by Saqi. "They had no publicity budget, but they had great enthusiasm. They submitted The White Family for the Orange [prize] as a manuscript because they believed in it," she says. The book has become a hot favourite on the reading-group circuit. "Too many books are published without commitment," says Gee. "What’s the point of that?"
But if money, not merit, is the main indicator that a book deserves support, passion will be damned as publishers fight to claw back their investment. We may face a future where the bestseller lists will be dominated by money more than merit.