Publishing Prose in the Twenty-first Century: Challenges and Opportunities

This is a summary of a talk Andrew Lownie gave at Cambridge University on 28th October 2005.

In The Artistic Career of Corky , Bertie Wooster says “I used to think that publishers had to be devilish clever fellows, loaded down with the grey matter but I've got their number now. All a publisher has to do is to write cheques at intervals, while a lot of deserving and industrious chappies rally round and do the real work.” If only it were as simple as that!

The media is currently filled with stories of doom and gloom about the publishing trade. Earlier this month Alan Bennett at the Cheltenham Literary Festival boldly stated that “I'm convinced the majority of the great authors of the 20 th century wouldn't get published now because they weren't writing mainstream books” while Jason Epstein, co-founder of the New York Review of Books , summarizes the current situation of the publishing industry as larger and larger “conglomerates…within a mature and possibly even declining industry, sandwiched between more and more powerful agents and greater and greater discounts requested by big bookselling chains in chronic crisis, while the consumer base is in a phase of stagnation, since the readers looking for escapism turn to different media.” How true a picture is this?

Books are certainly taking a smaller share of consumer disposable income with 33% of the population never buying a book. Some 26 million people in this country have levels of literacy and numeracy below those expected of a school leaver . There is more central buying so bookshops are becoming ever more homogenised and not always reflecting local interests,. Decisions on covers, and often content, are taken by poorly-paid central buyers at Smiths, Waterstones etc who are often not well read or educated. Publishers are concerned that if Google are allowed to digitise books that the educational and academic market will vanish.

The divisions between producers and retailers are becoming blurred. Publishers are now creating their own ‘bookclubs' such as Haus or selling directly from their websites. “We can offer features, services and guidance that might be difficult for another retailer to provide,” Penguin Group Chairman John Makinson said last week. “What we're not going to be is competitors to Amazon or any other retailer in this area.” Though they may be at pains to stress they are not competing against booksellers, the potential is there.

Retailers are becoming publishers or packagers, such as Barnes & Noble and Bookspan, Amazon are now selling second hand books while the secondhand bookseller Abebooks is selling new books, often review copies before the book is officially published. Almost 10% of consumer spending on books is now on second hand or used books fuelled by sellers such as Barnes & Noble, ebay, Alibris, Amazon, Abebooks and Powells. That said, it is open to discussion whether used books are cannibalizing those of new ones or if it's a complementary market of buyers who otherwise wouldn't buy books at all.

The likely takeover of Ottakers by Waterstones will give them greater market share and lead to pressure for even higher discounts further squeezing what publishers, writers and agents earn. Already Waterstones are looking for quicker stock turnover so books are ordered in ever smaller quantities and returned quickly.

Part of the problem is the sheer number of new books published each year. Last year some 375,000 new titles were published in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (of which 160,000 new titles were published in the UK alone ) or 40% of new book content worldwide. Global Books in Print now has a database of 14 million books, audio and video titles. That is a lot of books for a bookshop to hold, especially as 3,000 new titles a week continue to pour off the UK presses.

The figures for English language publishing make interesting reading and give a sense of the trends. 18% is fiction, drama and literary criticism which is a 21% increase on 2003, 12% is children's & young adult, a 33% increase on the previous year while 9% is science & technology, a fall of 9% on the previous year which doesn't augur well for our ability to innovate and compete in future. Religion and travel saw double-digit increases while history and economics a significant decline. Only 3% were books in translation and 75% of those were non-fiction. Indeed, the number of translations in the Czech Republic and the USA is about the same.

Let us look at the bright side. There is more consumer choice than ever, book prices are falling in real terms, more writers are being published than ever before and more writers are earning quite considerable sums of money from their writing, not least from the plethora of prizes available and paid opportunities to talk or write about their books. Publishing remains a glamorous industry and technology has made production, editorial, rights selling, marketing, distribution and selling easier and cheaper.

We have Richard & Judy plugging often new and unknown writers on primetime television, the Daily Mail bookclub and its sell-out literary lunches, book giveaways in newspapers such as the Times, supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda stocking ever wider ranges of books, the growth of literary festivals (there are now over a hundred of them), literary lunches and reading groups - many of those groups working with magazines such as newbooksmag, publishers websites and libraries.

Television has stimulated interest in history and classic literature as seen from recent adaptations of Dickens and Jane Austen and the success of the BBC History Magazine. More than 8 million people have watched Bleak House leading to 5,000 copies of the book being sold during the last month; Amazon have reported a 290% rise in purchases of the book and a 31% rise in sales of Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities during the same period. Many writers, long out of favour such as Patrick Hamilton, are being rediscovered and promoted to a new generation. Joyce Cary's fortunes were helped by the film of Mister Johnso and Julian Maclaren-Ross by a small publisher Black Spring Press who has worked with Dewi Lewis in joint publicity initiatives . The Scottish Arts Council, in particular, are subsidising the reissuing of Scottish classics while Penguin are constantly revamping their classics lists.

Many independent bookshops, in particular Daunts, are flourishing and independents are often instrumental in creating a best seller such as Sandoe Books with Sally Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel and Heywood Hill with George Courtauld's self-published Pocket Book of British Patriotism. And initial rejection may not mean the end of the road. Courtauld is now published by Random House under a programme where they pick up successful self-published books while Deborah Lawrenson's self-published novel The Art of Falling , previously rejected by her regular publisher Random House, is now on their list on the strength of a rave review in the Daily Mail.

The Folio Society can shift enormous numbers of well-produced and high-class books because they create reader loyalty . If they and independent booksellers can do it then so can the bigger bookselling chains but they need to decentralise their book-buying policy so managers can respond to local interests and engage more with the local community .

Start up costs for publishers have never been lower. Production costs are down, books can be printed more quickly and in smaller quantities so warehouse costs are reduced, there are more magazines and newspapers to publicise books, there are more independent publicists and sales forces while the growth of on-line retailing has meant much of the selling can be done by one person.

So while we have bigger and bigger conglomerates, such as Bertelsmann, Hachette and Harper Collins operating with huge marketing and distribution muscle, there are plenty of smaller but successful publishers, such as Canongate, Bloomsbury (now becoming one of the big beasts), Portobello, Atlantic, Profile. We need a plethora of medium and small publishers because they are the risk takers and often more innovative: one thinks of Gibson Square Press taking on the House of Saud book from Random. Indeed, some big publishers such as Random House and Hachette are trying to combine size with flexibility creating a series of autonomous imprints often competing against each other and with separate sales forces but with shared overheads, such as royalty and accounts departments, allowing them to create distinct identities or brands.

Because the entry bars have never been lower the market is dividing between the high volume, ‘brand' authors with the big publishers and agents and supermarkets and the old carriage trade publishing with specialist ‘boutique' agents and publishers. I am often asked by American publishers where my 'people' are. I started with large offices in Piccadilly but now work alone for the simple reason I find it more effective. Authors deal only with me and if there are problems they can only be of my making. I broadly specialise in one area - biography and history - so know all the editors well who commission in those subject areas. As a result my agency is now ranked third behind PFD and Curtis Brown (each with a dozen agents) in terms of website visitors and submissions. This 'boutique' approach to publishing for booksellers, publishers and agencies is surely one way forward offering customers personal service and expertise.

What does the future hold?

It is sometimes forgotten that publishing is a business and it's the bottom line that counts. It is not a charity to indulge the vanities of self-indulgent writers and no-one is owed a living. Publishers and agents will quickly go out of business if they cannot find and successfully publish writers and they have to concentrate their energies on those writers who can deliver commercial success. They can act as gate keepers and try to shape taste but ultimately the reading public will decide what it wants to buy and read.

Publishing may appear old-fashioned and 'books are different' but it has embraced many of the tools of modern retailing. For example, there is now market research on the readership of particular authors which has led to changed covers and different marketing strategies. Publishers are increasingly aware of the importance of selling and marketing their books. The head of one of the most successful Illustrated Books publishers told me recently the secret of their sucess was reversing the usual ratio of editors and salespeople so they have three times as many people in sales as editorial.

One of the great success stories of recent years is The Book People who sell books heavily discounted through their online and printed catalogues and door to door. They argue they are bringing new readers into the market and introducing readers to particular authors but debate rages about how far they are undercutting conventional trade publishing especially if they are offering books which have only just been published.

The end of retail price maintenance (the Net Book Agreement) has led to a price war and heavy discounting which may be good short term for the consumer but price should be only one of many tools to sell books. There is a danger we undermine the perceived 'value' of books by cutting prices and need to look at imaginative ways of reaching the target market and making the particular book appeal to that market. Though much criticised, the '3 for 2' promotions may persuade consumers to read an author they might not normally have bought.

And we must avoid the crazy situation of chasing volume at the expense of margin and antagonising loyal bokshop customers as Bloomsbury did by offering radically different terms to booksellers for the latest JK Rowling, thereby allowing Kwik Save to sell the book at half the price of an independent bookshop. Do we really need to heavily discount books like Harry Potter which would sell anyway?

One of publishing's challenges is bringing in new readers. We need to start them young. The success of JK Rowling, Melvin Burgess and Jaqueline Wilson is an encouraging sign as their readers should move on to other authors as they grow older.Many initiatives already exist to increase the number of readers such as Quick Reads. Twelve titles will be launched on World Book Day 2 nd March 2006 to coincide with Adult Learners Week. They are written by well-known writers, are short and accessible so will appeal to the busy as well as less sophisticated readers and can be bought with one of some five million book tokens funded by the Department of Education.

There are plenty of challenges ahead. Our libel laws often dissuade publishers from taking on controversial books. Long lead times between delivery and publication mean that it is hard to publish subjects currently in the news. Technology, such as print on demand, is outpacing publishing practice and contracts so that agents will increasingly need to look at short term licences rather than assignments for copyright term. Booksellers tend to order new titles, often irrespective of its commercial appeal, by established authors on the strength of previous sales which makes it difficult to take writers to a new level. There is the high cost of returns in an industry where there is often no fixed sale and there is the danger that p ublishing is becoming increasingly homogenous . Bookshops are dominated by established writers and celebrities and it is difficult to sell anything original and quirky. Publishers want something “the same but different”.

Though it is true that publishers find it easier to sell attractive, young, famous authors (I'm always on the look out for weather girls to write a book) there are lots of exceptions. Authors can make the jackpot after many years plugging away, such as Sandy McCall-Smith who for all his talents is not young and photogenic, while there are lots of Christmas turkeys where publishers spent millions on a celebrity for the book to bomb. Most bestsellers are still thankfully based on word of mouth.

We have been sacrificing margin to volume but a stand is now being taken by some publishers. Supermarkets have increased the market and benifitted many authors, such as Martina Cole and Patricia Cornwell, but publishers are also courting their smaller, often more loyal, bookshop customers who can help build less obviously commercial author careers. Editors still champion quality writing and there are signs that book chain buyers are trying to be more imaginative and adventurous in their buying policy.

Technology has meant the costs of producing and selling books has come down thereby offering us the opportunity of greater choice. We musn't let that choice be restricted because we continue to rely heavily on the same old mediums for purchasing or reading books or because our education and library system has failed to bring on new readers.

The opportunities for writers are greater than ever. There are more publishers, more agents, more books being commissioned and it is now cheap and easy to self-publish or publish on the web. Inevitably, given the sheer quantity of books published, some standards may have dropped but the publishing industry still recognises, nurtures and promotes talent so it is ridiculous to suggest great writers may be being missed. I don't share Alan Bennett or Jason Epstein's pessimism because I think a pluralistic industry filled with educated and smart people, as publishing still is, will always find a way to strike a balance between maintaining high literary standards and achieving profit.