The first (obvious) tremors of the deepening economic crisis are being felt in the detached worlds of New York and London publishing, the principal centres of English language writing. What is dismaying is that these outfits – they can hardly be classed as businesses or cultural bodies – have not collapsed already. Publishers face extinction. That publishers have survived in this condition so long is partly because they are often staffed by a privileged and connected crowd, recruited from the lower divisions of the elite who are rigidly of the opinion that their skills, insights etc are indispensable and although the economics winds may bring a chilly breeze, Canute-like they defy the waves. Until now. Publishers whimper about the books they cannot afford to publish, but it is writers who cannot afford publishers.
Are books dead? Is the novel is dead? Now that publishers are in an advanced vegetative state, the novel is about to flourish. Although book publishing has largely escaped the brunt of the Internet’s commercial impact, publishers are the media tribe’s prime candidate for being eradicated by the internet because writing is, in most cases, solitary. Admittedly the finished product needs a few helping hands, but nothing insurmountable. The literary product is not encumbered with the travails of film and TV production. The solitariness of writers is their trump card, and is what will make publishing as we know it extinct. Those self-publishing writers who have been pitied and sneered at will soon be envied.
Publishers are making their plight worse by becoming even more timid when they have to be bold. Most publishers no longer want to read unsolicited manuscripts and discover new writers, they seem to have acquired a taste solely for writers fresh off university creative writing courses. Was Ibsen guided by a creative writing tutor? Was Doris Lessing? Was Marguerite Yourcenar? Was Patrick White? Was Phillip Roth? US publishers fell, en masse, for this lark at least since about 1980 (but sporadically prior to then) and the pattern is an initial hullabaloo and synchronised fanfare then disappointment and stints back at fiction factories, this time as foreman overseeing the assembly of new writers for ‘discovery’. (In London Faber, once one of the greatest houses of British publishing, is running its own creative writing courses- the Faber Academy, if you will!- for those foolish enough to think they can buy their way in. It’s common knowledge that Faber is ‘adjusting’ to the loss of royalties from Cats, but this is beyond cheap, a crank not befitting its history.)
I am constantly dismayed by the books publishers choose to publish and promote. Bloomsbury in London and its US subsidiary published Heston Blumenthal’s Big Fat Duck Cookbook last year at £125 in the UK and $250. Even though the production of the title was probably begun before the fiscal crisis gathered pace, the book is still amazing example of the gaudy superficiality dominating publishing. When I checked Amazon UK on Thursday it was 9117 in book sales and the US store had it at 22453. Even if all the sales took place around the Christmas, those rankings say a lot about the wisdom of such an endeavour. It would have made more sense investing in writers, and promoting a group of writers together rather than massaging the ego of a man who hasn’t realised we didn’t like Findus Boil-in-the-Bag first time round.UK Sales of the book are around 6000, considering the price and the economy it has to be admitted that is not awful. However the absurd size and gimmicky recipes render the whole project meaningless, stupid and detached; like most people I chuckled heartily when The Fat Duck was closed due to illness among its high-paying diners. The priority of publishing houses must be writers, not chefs. (Bloomsbury, which owes a great deal to the JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, has shamelessly brought forward a British writer’s vile account of parent-child strife to capitalise on the publicity- a repulsive irony.)
Some in publishing think the new electronic devices – ‘iPods for books’ is the tedious shorthand – will destroy books, while a few deluded publishers – is there any other? – think ‘ereaders’ will save them. I imagine a few see their imprints as the literary version of Apple’s iTunes Store, ignoring retailers and delivering books directly to the devices of delighted customers. The reader devices will destroy not save publishers. The commercial base of the ‘next’ J K Rowling and the ‘next’ Stephen King etc and the future sales of those two current cash cows will be decimated. The small sales base of literary fiction will save books. Yes there will be a few shocks there too but this is where the genuine readers and book buyers are to be found- people who want, and will continue to want, the physical product to hold and place on a bedside table, a shelf. Crossover literary titles, prize-winners and film tie-ins most likely, and the backlist of Nobel laureates will suffer as books are pirated and downloaded. It’s the mass market that will be destroyed as these Sony and Amazon devices are quickly be joined by cheaper ones, just as the MP3 market is awash with substitutes for the iPod. In fact books could be even more prone to piracy because many of the younger people, to whom these devices are principally aimed, are not generally book buyers; so if they are not loyal to music, film and video games, their main entertainment interests and focus of their spending power, what are the prospects for books? When one considers how books are already borrowed, photocopied and circulated in colleges, for example, will younger generations really want to buy a book when it could be downloaded and they could then spend their money on something else? Additionally literary reading for pleasure is something younger people simply don’t get.
So the current business model- lots of chaff to enjoy the respectability and prestige of a ration of wheat for the award circuit,- will be fatally undermined.
Sony went into the film business and got tangled up in an endless Digital Rights Management mess which has effectively destroyed the Walkman brand. You will notice that Sony has belatedly understood the lessons of its venture into movies and is not dabbling in the publishing business to complement its eReader …so the more books that are pirated the more money Sony makes selling its device. And Amazon, too, which is more of an online department store than a cyber bookseller, has had a look at the tealeaves and decided the money, is to be had in peddling its Kindle devices for the cyber booty. Publishers, if you think Sony and Amazon are customising the life rafts, calamity awaits. Even if publishers decide not to participate in download offerings, the pirates will simply scan the books and circulate them freely, or sell at a nominal fee, as PDF files, word docs, (or any proprietary format that will soon be hacked) since Sony and Amazon have so thoughtfully introduced the platform.
The future for agents isn’t very rosy either- because writers will not be able to afford them. The role of the agent has become exaggerated because of the few headline-grabbing advances that secure the elixir of splashy headlines for the agent, the author and a free publicity campaign for the house.
So what will the publisher of the future look like? Self-publishing.
Writers must publish themselves- a simple co-operative where all those commercial overheads are pooled to keep them to an absolute minimum, unfortunately that includes advances. Authors publish when they are ready and their sales finance the book, preparing the manuscript for publication is in effect the advance. An obvious disadvantage with such a scheme is that for it to work established writers – usually the most conservative – have to launch it. So let’s presume a few ‘names’ get together and launch the first writer’s co-op. In essence it’s a virtual operation. Possibly a writer belonging to the co-op will have a spare room to house an employee, or admin could be outsourced. An example: a few established British writers combine resources and set up, say, Ealing Press. Ian McEwan, say, participates and publishes On Chesil Beach under the Ealing Press imprint. Distribution will almost certainly be by mail, that way the writers can maximise the financials by balancing royalties and cover price without have to be at the mercy of retailers and retaining what would have been the retailer’s margin to make the cost (and presentation) of a book attractive to genuine readers and acceptable enough to occasional buyers for them to forego a pirated copy. Warehousing and distribution can be outsourced and, ideally, the collectives use their literary colleagues in any territory they have earmarked for translation. If the books sold in sufficient numbers, the collectives could bring the business end of publishing together as a separate entity working for all the independent publishers.
McEwan thinks his novel would sell in France so he finances a translation, Sur la plage de Chesil and Ealing Press print it in French. They don’t publish it in France, as such. It’s all done from London but the book is printed where it is economically viable to do so and despatched by whatever means. If it’s printed in France, La Poste collect the books from the printers or the printers deliver it to the French equivalent of Ealing Press who post to French buyers just as Ealing Press (etc) could dispatch the English editions of French novels from French co-ops and so on, country by country. So the presentation is identical in every language, as each imprint builds its brand globally, a horrible expression but writers are not making an impression at the moment, neither intellectually nor in terms of the economic importance of publishing.
Even if this model works perfectly until the books are ready to be distributed, how do writers overcome the challenge of dwindling markets? IPTV- Internet Protocol television, more commonly called webcasting. Readers, not surprisingly, used to follow the TV book programmes where a new title was discussed with the author or a general overview programme about a writer’s life and themes, sometimes coinciding with a film adaptation or such like. The costs are, in comparison with TV, miniscule. HD cameras, editing suites, storage and hosting are astonishingly cheap. Graphics and anything fancy can be kept to a minimum. Again the writers can combine resources so that there is not any excessive expenditure on equipment, form an umbrella group to spread costs while maintaining the house identity and simply upload interviews, readings etc for the public to enjoy. There is no squabbling over scheduling or prominence- the public simply download or stream what they want when they want it. It’s simple. Moreover when the internet is awash with garish nonsense it is the responsibility of genuinely creative and talented people to provide the material the discerning public feel is being neglected by TV.
And will self-publishing as the standard business model assure the future of the novel in physical form as a source of income for writers? Possibly not but readers of serious books, fiction and non-fiction, tend to be more thoughtful and conscientious, snooty but true. They have no difficulty understanding that if books are not bought and sold honestly and fairly then literature and the spread of knowledge will die. Once the written word is imperilled, everything will be eclipsed.