The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Not a golden age, but hopeful enough

Michael Allen on changes in the publishing industry:

My own take on the position is as follows. And I am speaking here, for simplicity, of fiction only.

Yes, once upon a time there were lots of small publishing firms whose editors were interested only in finding good books -- a term which was defined as being the kind of book which they themselves enjoyed. Forty years ago, in the UK, it was possible to break even on a novel by selling about 2,000 copies; and you could usually shift that number to the library market. So the average book would more or less pay its way, and the occasional surprise hit would keep the firm in business. Nobody got rich, but writers could be kept going for half a dozen books or so while their promise was converted into achievement.

That business has been dead -- totally and completely six feet under -- for at least twenty years. The library market has virtually vanished, and all the small firms have been bought up and incorporated into half a dozen big (by publishing standards) firms which are themselves tiny subsidiaries of much bigger (and often foreign-owned) companies -- companies which expect their small publishing sections to make substantial profits. Not publish literature, but make profits.

And from the perspective of the current owners of publishing firms, the problem with publishing is that it is pathetically unsatisfactory as a profit-generating business. (There is lots more about this in my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile). Every serious businessman who has ever looked closely at book publishing, and particularly fiction publishing, has given a snort of derision and hastily passed on.

For those who continue to work in big-time commercial publishing, however, the demands of the job are very simple. You have to sell books.

Whether this view is entirely correct is another issue. But for the most part, it is a necessary antidote to the degree of romanticizing (and mystification) that still surrounds the actual world of publishing.

One point that interests me in particular is the role that libraries used to play. Obviously, if they were buying books -- for example, 2,000 -- that meant lower potential sales, since readers could take the books out on loan. But it also meant that an author, even if relatively unknown, could count on at least having a certain audience. In other words, there was less astronomical success, but also less absolute failure. Although not a golden age, it seems rather enviable now.


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