Sunday, 27 November 2011

Sour grapes? Yes, enough to keep Oliver Reed happy for a year

In years to come, arts pundits will look back on 2011 and talk about 'The Pippa Middleton Moment' - the turning point in the history of publishing. Her name will be cursed through clenched teeth by some. Others will hang posters of her on the wall, like some modern day Che Guevarra. Although, let's be honest, she'll probably be facing the other way.

To be fair to fair Pippa, she will be entirely blameless. Her actions will have been entirely justified and proper. However, hers will be the name that people remember and attach to the pivotal moment when traditional book publishing shot itself in both feet.

In case you don't know, the various newspapers and publishing feeds have been buzzing these past few weeks with the news that a 'significant deal' was about to be brokered for Pippa Middleton to write a book about organising a party. The rumours were that her advance would be in the region of six figures. Now, I won't be so crass as to suggest that the words will be written by anyone other than Ms. Middleton; for all I know she may be a very good writer indeed. I'm sure she's also an excellent party organiser - it is what she does for a living after all. But these issues will not be the reason why the various publishing houses have been cramming themselves into the starting gates and preparing themselves for a bidding war. It's because of who she is or, rather, who she's related to.

Today, a figure emerged of £400,000. I have no idea if it's correct as the sources are tabloid-based (another publishing story altogether) but, if it is, I feel genuinely saddened.

Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge her the money. Hell, wouldn't we all like to score a deal like that? Of course we would. As I say, she's blameless. Good luck to her. My ire and frustration and annoyance is focused solely on the publishing industry - no, the beam is even narrower than that - it's focused on the accountants that now run the publishing industry and, it seems, everything else. Money has not become the dominant factor in the arts and entertainment (it always was, let's be honest) - it now seems to be the only factor.

You all know, I'm sure, that Richard Adams' Watership Down was rejected 13 times and that The Diary of Young Girl by Anne Frank was rejected 15 times. Frank Herbert's Dune was turned down 23 times, Stephen King's Carrie was rejected 30 times, and Marina Lewycka's recent worldwide best-seller A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian was rejected 36 times. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig was rejected a staggering 121 times. But the winner so far (I've only done 10 minutes of research and am sure it can be beaten) is Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, which was rejected a staggering 140 times. It has since gone on to sell 80 million copies in 37 languages. And, guess what? J K Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times. All of which means that, in the current climate, it would probably never have been published because it was not a dead cert from the off.

In the past, publishers chose what books to carry on merit and gut instinct. If they felt that the book deserved to be out there in the world and was 'worth a punt', they signed the author. Some failed, many went on to become bestsellers. Which is how J K Rowling eventually got signed by Bloomsbury, despite 12 other publishers saying no. Someone took and risk because they liked it. However, that kind of decision-making is now driven solely by profit margins. If you don't believe me, go and look in the High Street book shop (if you can find one). It's celebrity book after celebrity book. Some of them may be very good; I can't judge them without having read them. But it seems more than likely that many were published simply because there's a readymade fan base that will lap them up. They're dead certs. There's nothing essentially wrong with that  - it makes good business sense. But the problem is that, in order to secure the 'author', the publishers will have had to shell out a small fortune every time. And the amounts are getting bigger and bigger. In these times of austerity, that means that the pot for signing new authors is getting smaller every day. Publishers are as hard-hit by the recession as anyone else and, let's be realistic about this, they are businesses that will collapse themselves if they don't turn a profit. There isn't unlimited cash to splash about. But what cash there is seems to flow only in the direction of the rich or already famous.

I've had some experience of this. If you look to the right of this blog page you'll see some reviews for my first book, Joined-Up Thinking. They were all very positive and complimentary. I didn't get a single bad review. Stephen Fry attached his name to the project with a cover quote. My publisher loved it and paid me a generous advance. I was even asked to go away and write the sequel immediately. But then, as the book awaited printing and distribution, the UK lost several major book retailers - Ottakars, Books etc. and Borders among them - and, within just a few months of signing my book deal, the dominant force in bookselling was the retailers: W H Smiths, John Menzies and the supermarkets. Smaller branches of the stores will only stock the Top 50 charting books and supermarkets are celeb-driven. And neither promote new authors. All of the advertising money is spent on promoting books by celebrities and well-established authors who, let's be honest, don't actually need it. No Dan Brown fan is going to miss the fact that he has a new one out. All that advertising is simply gilding an already 24 carat lily. The result was that my book sold okay - if you'd actually heard about it or could find it. Despite all the predictions of success it had recieved from reviewers and trade magazines, it never stood a chance. And guess what? As the result, the second book I'd been asked to write was dropped like a warm dog turd.

Yes, of course there are some sour grapes on my part. I'm honest enough to admit that. But the story illustrates a much bigger point, namely that my book was considered good enough to warrant an advance, publication and a sequel ... but it was never given the chance to prove itself. My editor was so apologetic. He really believed in both books but he just couldn't get anyone to promote Book 1 and he couldn't get Book 2 past the acountants. Had I been a footballer, or a reality show contestant or the sister-in-law of the future king, he would have had no such problem no matter how good or bad the book would have been.

Which brings me back to the Pippa Middleton case. I wish her well, I really do. I hope the book is a huge success. I'd wish that to any author. But that £400,000 is not going to discover the next J K Rowling or the next Stephen king. It won't provide an advance that will allow some brilliant new author to research their novel. It won't pay someone's food and rent while they work on that next great children's book. It won't be used to promote new books by new writers. And, I suspect, it won't generate a book that we'll all be talking about in 10 years time, let alone 100.

What it will do is drive more frustrated authors into the arms of self-publishing companies. Or maybe they'll try their luck with a crowd-funded enterprise like Unbound. Crowd-funding is a model we've already seen working successfully in the music industry where popular bands and artists have been dropped by their labels for being unprofitable but have then bounced back with fan-funded albums. Marillion are a great case in point. Despite selling millions of albums, they were dropped. So their fans now pay for every new album and touring generates the rest of their income. They're free of corporate restraint and enjoy a relationship with their fans that is closer than most other bands enjoy. I helped fund the most recent albums by Emmy the Great and Jim Moray and they are wonderful. And that's the way I see publishing going in the future. There will come a point when authors choose this path as the desired path; Bestselling tweeter and author Mrs Stephen Fry has already taken the plunge this last week. And even though they'd have no problem getting a more traditional deal, Monty Python's Terry Jones and Red Dwarf's Robert Llewelyn have also gone with Unbound because they believe in it too. With this model of publishing, it's the readers who dictate what they want to read rather than the accountants offering only what they choose to publish. Subscription is how books used to be funded before the days of big publishing houses so there's no shame in returning to those roots. The quiet revolution has already begun.

This week, public sector workers will go on strike in an attempt to preserve their pensions. The Leveson Inquiry will continue to hear how corporate greed led certain newspapers and individuals to illegally invade people's privacy in order to sell papers. Bankers will be paid bonuses for helping to make big profits while people on the breadline will be charged £30 for going a quid or two overdrawn. Footballers and pop stars and other celebrities will earn millions - much of it from publishing deals. Meanwhile, in New York and London and other major cities, groups of ordinary, angry citizens will be spending another day camped on the streets to show their utter disgust at a culture where greed is good and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Traditional publishing, it seems to me, has made the mistake of aligning itself with this philosophy. I would suggest that in doing so they are pushing their own tumbrel towards the gallows.

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