Every year when the Wordfest comes to Cambridge, I like to attend the publishing industry panel. In these past few years of rapid change, it’s been fascinating to hear how publishers are responding to the crisis in the economy and the advent of the digital revolution. When you see the editors in the flesh, it’s even more fascinating to witness the frustration and the excitement they so clearly feel in a business that’s fuelled by passion and full of opportunities but beset by so many awkward challenges. And here’s another thing that I’ve noticed – editors (like policemen) seem to be getting younger and younger. What’s more, this is a business dominated by women, smart, efficient, extremely competent young women, which seems to mean that the male editors are unorthodox types, more performative than your average business man, more eccentric, and (in my experience) the ones that carry the burden of negativity, whilst the women forge determinedly ahead. In the panel yesterday there were two women and one man, and when presented with the question which his female colleagues had unhesitatingly answered, essentially a question about what he did, the man rubbed his face vigorously with his hands, puffed out his cheeks, shook his head, gave us the whole mime show of the arduous task that was explaining the publishing world to the general public. When he did speak, he was evidently a highly intelligent person. But repeatedly over the session he wanted to talk about the mystery at the heart of publishing, the impossibility of figuring out the book market. It was all most intriguing.
What came out of the session most clearly was that the way books are sold has changed so much, publicity and marketing departments find themselves at sea for the first time in many decades. The most significant change in publishing this past year has been the demise of the high street bookstore. In the UK, Waterstones is the only chain bookseller still standing, with a few branches of Blackwells about the place and then the remains of the plucky independents. With fewer retailers promoting fewer books, one editor commented that ‘it feels like the stakes are really high’ for each book they try to market. And the man pointed out that although no one really likes to say it, bookstores fear that they are simply unpaid showrooms for amazon. How many times do customers go into the store to look for a book, and then order it online for the discount? He said he wondered whether amazon would one day buy Waterstones and turn it into a kind of bookselling Argos. For those outside the UK, Argos is an odd shopping experience whereby you look at the catalogues in the front of the shop, fill in an order form and your goods are delivered from some mysterious warehouse out the back. Everyone in the room knew just what he meant when he said this, and our collective blood turned cold, I can tell you.
So, with fewer bookstores, how are publishers to reach their customers? For over a century now, bookshops have been the middle man in the book world, and publishers have sold to them. Now publicity departments find themselves in the odd position of needing to reach their customers directly, but how is such a task to be accomplished? Evidently, social media seems to be one possible way, and publicity departments now keep up their facebook pages, and tweet, and work more closely than before with book bloggers. But those of us who book blog know just how enormous the book blogging world has become. How can any of us really have any influence? One of the editors spoke about the way that publicity has become ‘the art of lighting small fires’, in the hope of gathering a virtual community around a book. The man pointed out that publishers have always had two methods of connecting with the reading public: newspapers and word of mouth. Now that newspapers carry so few reviews, they are obliged to turn to word of mouth in the form of social media, without any sense that it will be effective. He cited a recent book in which the author details his research into the ‘cascade’ effect responsible for huge successes like Harry Potter or Stieg Larsson – and in which he concludes that no one has any idea how they happened. If you can’t even figure out with the precise science of hindsight what makes a book sell, you can hardly predict future sales with any certainty.
Publishers are having to face some inconvenient truths: firstly that too many books are being published, and secondly that most books sell less than a 1,000 copies. Books are strange consumer goods because of their potentially huge and dramatically changing lifespan. Moby Dick, for instance, sold only 600 copies in the UK during Hermann Melville’s lifetime. In more recent times, The Hare with the Amber Eyes had fewer than 1,000 subscriptions when it was first published. It isn’t easy to be that responsive with a product, and ebooks are still not proving to be the solution to the industry’s troubles. More research suggests that the customers who buy 99p ebooks are effectively the customers who used to frequent remainder bookstores. They are not about to buy the second higher priced book by an author whose work they have enjoyed at 99p; no, they would prefer to read a different author and stick with the 99p price label. I don’t think we readers realise quite how much power we have over the market, and that we will get the book world that we are prepared to pay for. Genre becomes ever more popular with publishers because genre readers tend to be loyal, happy to buy the next Lee Child or Barbara Taylor Bradford novel that gets released. But literary fiction readers are, according to the editors ‘highly promiscuous’. They only want to read the next big thing. Try to make sense of a literary fiction writer’s career! the man said. That author could have a huge hit with his first novel and then simply disappear off the map.
So, what this session made me realise was how much publishers need readers to help them out at present. And we need to take a good long look at our reading habits and think about what they tell the industry. Publishers want nothing more than to please us, and so we can have no reason for complaining: we get the books we deserve. If we want books to be published, we have to buy them, or check them out of the library a lot. We have to spread the word about books that are good among our reading friends, and we have the option of giving feedback directly to publishers in a way we have never been able to before. I’ve heard of bear markets and bull markets, but this is the bookworm market; we should use our powers right now, or we will lose them.
Thinking about it, I felt that the greatest drawback to reading is the amount of time we have available for it. There are so many books I want to read, it’s impossible to find the time to give to them all. When the agent asked the editors as a final question what they would change to make their lives better if they had divine powers, they found it hard to say. But oddly enough, I felt they should be asking for the literacy hour we impose on schoolchildren every day to be extended to the workplace. If everyone had to set aside one hour a day for reading, think what that would do for the adult book market! I know, it’s not likely, but then we were allowed to play at being divine for our answers, and given the mystery that is publishing, that’s probably the only way we’ll find them.