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.


  1. Author Gill James emailed me to comment and i thought it would be useful to include our exchange here {Gill's comments are in bold}:

    Most interesting article, Candy ... Can't see any of my publishers forking out £50,000 to promote my books. Interestingly, in my PhD I'm saying that this type of action is influencing what is actually available. Some YA stuff, for instance, which is incredibly well written and/or is extraordinary, has made an impact. Others are just as well written and just as extraordinary but makes little impact. So, people don't get to hear about it or to read it.

    yes, publishers feel really put upon i think. but we writers at the end of the chain feel even more put upon. it's like we have to go through filter after filter – such as agents – or we have to test the markets ourselves by self-publishing!

    I do ask, though, what happened before Amazon to those books which just didn't get into the bookshops. At least if your book is on Amazon - and there are really only a very few which aren't, it stands a chance

    yes, the internet is part of this rumbling revolution that in the publishing industry. on the one hand, publishers see amazon as a threat to their bottom lines because of the discounting and then make it tougher for us writers to get in. on the other hand, amazon can bring your self-published book to the market like you never could, as can publicity through the internet!

    it's happening in other industries of course - the music industry in particular has been rocked by the advent of itunes and podcasting. anybody can produce a radio programme or a song and put it up on the internet for download. and social (inter)networking such as myspace adds the means by which news of self-produced work can spread like a virus. the record companies, who've controlled the music industry for years, must be very worried indeed!

    i think the publishing industry has to change but they haven't quite figured out how yet.


  2. Guess this is the price we pay for progress. Self publishing is the route many authors now choose to get into print, but the optimist inside of me still believes in the silver lining.

  3. Book publishing is becoming more commercial and the big publishing companies increasingly will not back a book unless it is a sure bet. I think this is why authors are turning to self-publishing.

    However, I still feel very strongly that I want an editor to read my work and think it is good enough to be published and be willing to take a chance on it. I want to know they think it is good enough. For this reason, I have shied away from self-publishing.


  4. Mass market usually means 'a similar kind of voice' presented differently. So, if an author decides his/her voice does not quite fit the 'market' they are better off going it alone. That way, atleast we're ensured that 'a voice' does not disappear.

  5. Good point, Anil. The current system (at least here in the UK) of authors chasing categories (three year olds read picture books, seven year olds read chapter books with black and hite illustrations, etc) probably sacrifices a lot of unique voices. I recently attended a talk however where it was said that at the moment, a lot of UK publishers are looking for books in other languages to translate, hoping to strike gold (a la the "Cinderella" story of German author Cornelia Funke who has been relaunched in English to worldwide acclaim). So maybe there's hope!

  6. This is interesting. I think it's the author's responsibility to promote their books. Don't depend on the publisher to do all the work for you.


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