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 to be a transitory move to help collapsing profits, and Penguin have abandoned the series.
Publishers waste no time blaming booksellers for their troubles, citing the superior bookshops of the US or Europe. Although WH Smith is too powerful, this cannot be the real story. There are wonderful bookshops throughout the country, from the surviving independents to the chains, Waterstone’s (now part of WH Smith), Dillons, Books Etc and others. True, the gentlemanly relationship of bookseller and publisher’s “traveller” is a thing of the past and, following two years of poor results, WH Smith is due drastically to reduce its range of books. Does this mark the end of bookselling in every small town in Britain? No, WH Smith’s decision to cut stocks is prompted by the success of real bookshops. For the moment, it has decided to retreat from the battle and lick its wounds.
Power has also shifted in favour of authors and their agents. From the ?25-30m supposedly paid to Jeffrey Archer through to the notorious ?480,000 paid to Martin Amis, to ?25,000 for new first novels, the sums are always too much. It is true that royalties are paid less often because authors’ advances rarely pay for themselves in sales. But these advances typically represent the equivalent of a 15-20 per cent royalty compared with the old norm of 10 per cent.
The biggest question is whether books have a future at all. After 550 years, are they at an end? Are they about to be replaced by CD-Roms? Are children giving up on books? Are people losing the concentration for sustained reading? The evidence is confusing. Consider this:
Library borrowing is declining sharply, but library use is increasing.
Teachers report a constant struggle to keep boys reading after the age of ten and a little older for girls. But hasn’t it always been thus?
University teachers are expressing alarm at the shallowness of many undergraduates’ reading. But this may have more to do with the dramatic growth in higher education than changes in reading habits.
The UK book market grew slightly, by about 2 per cent, in 1995.
The fastest growing part of the paperback market in the last three years has been the ?1 classics.
The typical sale of a new first novel in hardback is under 750 copies. As Giles Gordon, a leading literary agent, says, this is not publishing but privishing.
Two thirds of the population never go into a proper bookshop. Of the people who do, one third of them (about 10 per cent of the population) buy three quarters of all the books.
Perhaps the only conclusion one can draw is that reading remains an elite activity. The size and nature of that elite changes, but not the importance of reading to it. For everyone else, reading is an occasional pursuit, sometimes doing better (when there are appealing bestsellers), sometimes worse.
Some publishers are responding to this by cutting back; others such as Transworld and Fourth Estate are buoyant and expanding. But beneath the surface, something more fundamental may be taking place.
With the odd exception, the big publishers are all shedding staff and authors and even whole imprints. HarperCollins sold Harvill last year to a management buyout and Penguin abruptly put the squeeze on Hamish Hamilton (and have now appointed a Hollywood studio boss to run the company, hardly a vote of confidence in the book). Little, Brown (part of Time Warner) and Orion are both doing well but from a standing start which makes it easier. Only Transworld, (owned by Bertelsmann) glitters, but it eschews literature for the mass market.
While the giants struggle, independent publishing in Britain is vibrant and new entrants are arriving all the time. The large publi-shers may have cash but it comes at a price: anonymous armies of accountants who control who spends it and how. Editors have to complete “title appraisal analysis” and assess the “return on capital invested” of a new novel. It discourages innovation and cannot take account of the good reviews, word of mouth or literary prizes which make the difference to new writers.
On the one hand, the Goliaths say that they have the scale to be effective internationally. They have armies of sales reps, huge warehouses, powerful computers and deep pockets. On the other hand, the independents say they can pick off a target better with a rifle than a tank; what matters is the author/editor relationship, which gets lost in big corporations.
But that need not be the case. Dan Franklin is the publisher of Jonathan Cape, the best house for literary fiction in London over the last 30 years. Cape is interesting because it is part of Random House, the privately owned conglomerate that went through traumatic times in the late 1980s. Franklin is-with reason-content. “This place is the exception because editors still count.”
Virago is another merger survivor. After 15 outstanding years of feminist publishing, the shareholders sold out to Little, Brown who promised continuity and greater riches. Most of the staff have gone but there are real advantages. “It is simple,” says Lennie Goodings, the publisher, “we can reach more women. I was in an auction for a first novel and went to ?27,000. I could never have done that before.”
But would bigger publishing groups have had the patience to stick with Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese Nobel laureate? Serpent’s Tail published him seven years ago selling only 400 copies. In the month he won the prize, they sold 5,000 copies. A more efficient publisher would have cleared the dead stock from its warehouse years earlier.
Serpent’s Tail, ten years old this year, aspires to be different. There is a price for that: low salaries and offices in Finsbury Park. But there are rewards, too: a distinctive character and real affection in authors, booksellers and readers’ hearts.
The problem is keeping authors. Peter Ayrton, the publisher at Serpent’s Tail, complains that “you sometimes feel like the R&D department of a large conglomerate, they sweep in with their cheque books and poach the authors away.”
Everyone pursues the big book that will propel them into the bestseller list; but the dream is the surprise success like Snow Falling On Cedars for Bloomsbury or Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow for Harvill. One of the most successful hardbacks last year was Politically Correct Bedtime Stories which sold over 250,000 copies. It was published by Souvenir, a quirky little publisher opposite the British Museum.
The small company’s enthusiasm is not enough. Some agents are candid about this. Felicity Bryan says: “I don’t do as much business as I would like with small publishers because in the end the author has to live on his or her advance. Where small publishers can be clever is in having ideas for books.”
But successful small houses grow into larger ones, sometimes picking up a partner and becoming well-funded, hybrid independents. Granta has Rea Hederman of the New York Review of Books, Fourth Estate has the Guardian and Bloomsbury has a solid track record and a stock-market listing.
There is a wider cultural shift propelling these changes which has little to do with changing reading habits. It is the trend towards niches. The common mass culture, in so far as it ever existed, is splitting into fractions determined by race, politics, sexual identity and subject area. These niches have been well served by the explosive growth of magazines over the past 15 years. The same proliferation is about to take place in television and radio. The once monolithic BBC will soon be competing with hundreds of broadcasters. These changes have been made possible by technological innovation-from computer typesetting to digital broadcasting-and are now reaching the more sedate world of publishing.
The defining trait of successful publishers now is their ability to answer the needs of specific audiences. On the side of the small publishers is fleetness of foot and an ability to be closer to authors and readers. The economies of scale are breaking down with the arrival of desktop publishing; might and size matter less than taste and judgement. Far from being wiped out by the conglomerates, the independent small publishers may be about to inherit the earth.