It is not a happy time for big publishers in Britain. But Andrew Franklin, who recently left Penguin to set up his own company, Profile Books, sees good times ahead for nimble independent housesby Andrew Franklin / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Publishing is strange. It is the rocky shoreline where the deep waters of literature meet the terra firma of business, profits and shareholders. Too often authors die, gasping for breath on the beach and publishers sink in the cruel waters.
In the last few years, climatic changes have led to more fatalities than ever. Authors are finding it difficult because the big publishers have trimmed their lists. Although some 8,000 novels were published in Britain last year, it is harder for first time novelists and “marginal” books to be published, and far less time is spent on editing and production.
After the excitement of the late 1980s, comes the inevitable squeeze. For HarperCollins and Penguin this has meant cutting jobs; for Reed Elsevier it means not being able to find a buyer for the trade division, despite illustrious names such as Methuen, Secker & Warburg, and Heinemann. These companies and others that made up Octopus were bought by Reed less than ten years ago for over ?500m. But now no one wants them even for ?100m.
There are many reasons for publishers’ current predicament. Paper prices have increased by more than 30 per cent over the last 18 months. Unlike newspapers which began a price war, publishers responded by increasing prices and cutting production standards. Most publishers now use poorer quality paper than they did five years ago. New books are more brittle, yellow more quickly and have a coarser texture; paperbacks feel like newsprint.
The collapse of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) has brought further grief. Cheaper books must be better for the consumer, although in nearly one year of unfettered prices, there has been little impact on sales. A pattern is emerging however, and it is the one feared by those who were against abolishing the NBA. Sales of bestsellers are increasing at the expense of all other titles. The standard price for paperback fiction from Vintage, Picador or Abacus has risen in 12 months from ?5.99 to ?6.99, six times the rate of inflation. This Christmas, hardback biographies, the staple of the old “carriage trade,” look set to be ?22.50 or ?25 instead of ?20 a year ago.
There have been attractive innovations, such as the 60p books by Penguin and Orion. Penguin sold over 20m last year. But these mini books are not the new cultural artefact that their creators had hoped. They turned out…