Monday 29 May 2006

Squeeze chain creates new routes to publishing

Some of us would love to imagine that the book business was about reading, not selling.

The Meg Ryan character in the film You’ve Got Mail sums it up beautifully when she talks about Shop Around the Corner, the children's bookshop her mother ran:
The world is not driven by by discounting … it wasn’t that she was just selling books, she was helping people become who they were going to be. When you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading does.
But how the world has changed!

Independent booksellers are fighting to keep their customers in the face of competition from chain stores.
With the behemoths able to secure huge discounts through bulk-buying, bestselling titles are now routinely sold at half their cover price, sometimes less. One independent I talked to reported finding the most recent Harry Potter (list price £16.99) at an absurd £2.99 in the local supermarket. Online, Amazon was yesterday offering it at £4.99. How does the small shop, which once looked forward eagerly to the annual Potter bonanza, compete with that? Are independents destined to follow second-hand bookshops, which have been all but obliterated by the internet, into oblivion?

Stephen Moss, The Best Sellers
The Guardian, 22 May 2006
Among other pressures, big book chains feel squeezed by supermarkets muscling in on their territory – with more and more consumers buying their books from supermarkets (a 41 percent rise in 2005 over 2004, Publishing News reported in March). That's apart from competition from the internet, of course.

So they’re discounting ferociously and squeezing the publishers by charging massive fees to put their titles on “recommended” lists and three for two offers – as described in a Sunday Times article yesterday:
No authors appear on recommended lists unless their publishers pay the fees, and those refusing to pay may not even find their titles stocked … The most expensive is WH Smith’s “adult gold” scheme, which is currently being presented to publishers who are expected to pay £50,000 a week per book for a place.

This guarantees a prominent position in the store’s 542 high street shops and inclusion in catalogues and other advertising. For the critical four-week Christmas sales period, it would cost a publisher at least £200,000 per book.

Robert Winnett and Holly Watt, £50,000 to get a book on recommended list
The Sunday Times, 28 May 2006
This puts publishers on the defensive. With that kind of outlay, their books have to make money – sooner rather than later. And so resources are poured into building a buzz around a book through marketing and publicity because by no means can they risk failure. But they can only do so much.

Which in turn puts the squeeze on us writers.

Increasingly publishers must put their faith in the commercial acumen of literary agents to spot the writers who can maximise their investment. “Concept” series are on the rise – books developed by companies like Working Partners who employ writers to write to a brief (series like the Rainbow Fairies, Animal Ark, etc). Many publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts.

With the door to getting published becoming narrower and narrower, it is no wonder that so many writers are turning to self-publishing (not to be mistaken for vanity publishing, in which the author pays a company to publish their book ). Self-publishing, it seems, is the new gateway to catching a publisher’s eye:

Look at GP Taylor, author of the children's novel Shadowmancer, which was bought by Faber in 2003. He now has a £3.5m six-book deal, and a film deal worth millions. The American rights to Shadowmancer were sold for £314,000, rumoured to be more than three times JK Rowling's cheque for the American publication of the first Harry Potter story.

Taylor, was a 43-year old vicar in Cloughton, North Yorkshire. He was advised that no publisher would touch his tale of good and evil set on the North-East coast in the 18th-century. So he sold his motorbike and published Shadowmancer himself for £3,500.

After selling 2,500 copies in a month, largely through word-of-mouth, he was recommended to the agent who signed JK Rowling to Bloomsbury. The rest is a self-publishing dream come true.

Jane Dowle, Scribblers are doing it for themselves
Yorkshire Post Today, 5 Sept 2005

(You can read Wall Street author Andy Kessler’s self-publishing success story)

Interestingly, the venerable Arts Council has funded a website called You Write On
The free website to help new writers develop, and to help talented writers get noticed and published.
The website uses a structure similar to techy websites like Experts Exchange where users interact and collect points according to their input. Instead of points, You Write On trades in critiques – the more you critique, the more you get your worked critiqued, and the better your work gets, the higher your rankings get - with the ultimate prize being a critique from publishing professionals.

The site has been online since January. In March, two reputable literary agencies, the Christopher Little Agency (representing J.K. Rowling) and Curtis Brown (representing Margaret Atwood), offered to consider the five highest rated works per month.

A consistently top-rating book will be chosen as book of the year – the prize: You Write On will publish and distribute your book to Amazon and several book chains, with the author retaining all rights and royalties.

Once upon a time, self-publishing was something of a last resort for aspiring authors. But in this new world where it is easier for a writer to squeeze through the eye of a needle than get published, self-publishing may become a respectable route to getting publishers to notice you.

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