Adam Ash

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Friday, June 09, 2006

Bookplanet: the shitty business of publishing

Writes and wrongs
By Michael Fishwick
(note: Waterstone's is the Barnes & Noble of the UK)

“Don’t expect Waterstone’s to rate it,” said my publisher. ”They only gave Helen Simpson a B.” What a multitude of woes are embedded in these words; the omnipotence of a book chain, its willingness to give a lower category, and hence smaller distribution, to the author of the justly celebrated Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, and the even lower expectations that lesser writers - in this case, me - must enjoy. And what makes it worse is that I know all about this stuff because I’m a publishing director. Being published is a refined exercise in S&M. Being in the business just gives it that additional piquancy - untold opportunities for humiliation and misery. Why on earth am I doing this?

Whatever the reason, it must be a damned good one. I know only too well what can happen to books in the long, slow process of getting them out of the authors’ hands and into the shops and the readers’ hands. A lot of authors, especially first-timers, ask me why this takes so long. The answer is that so many books are published in any one year that to prepare, package and sell them takes a lot of time.

The emergence of books into the world is like some great lava flow, unstoppable and with its own momentum. And within that flow all sorts of things are going on. Books can be found suddenly to have immense potential, as happened to Katie Hickman’s Daughters of Britannia after the publication of Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, which in turn was greatly helped by the publication of Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats. I know about this because I was the editor for Katie and Amanda, and could see that suffering women, especially at the hands of emotionally inarticulate men, and preferably in the 18th century, were, rightly in my view, a subject of keen interest to the general reader. After them, countless imitations of subject and cover treatment came out; histories and historical fictions alike. That’s what happens when it goes right.

When it goes wrong, people start to disagree about the merits of a book and how to publish it. This afflicts the big publishing houses above all, where each department has its own agenda. Add to that the sudden shifts in financial pressure that can affect everyone in publishing, for example the new demands of book chains that wish they were selling chart music instead, and the chances for all but the most obvious publications become alarmingly slim.

The sales department has a budget to meet and is concentrating on the big titles. Marketing has had its spends cut, but thinks it can get behind books with ”significant upside”. The art department doesn’t really get the book (let’s face it, putting great covers on endless works of fiction has to be one of the industry’s toughest jobs, almost as hard as reviewing them), and is certainly too busy to try out more than one idea. Publicity can’t see the USP. And all this after you've fought to be acquired in the first place, when the accounts department looked the editor in the eye and told him or her that this was exactly the kind of indulgence the company could no longer afford. ”They paid what for it?” is a favourite put-down in publishing. ”They must have taken leave of their senses” etc.

I’m not the only publisher who also writes, though it’s not common. And I assume others do it for the same reason. It gives me a profound sense of satisfaction; it is when I am happiest. It also takes place at some remove from the wider world, usually in the dusty corner of a library. It is an unworldly activity. Being published, on the other hand, is like swapping the deep peace of the marital bed for promiscuity. And it can help if you know the business from the inside.

When my publisher tells me not to expect to be ranked by Waterstone’s, this is what’s called authorial expectation management. I do it all the time. When we were looking at the cover for my book I was given seven different choices, and allowed to choose what I think is a marvellously stylish and striking one, which let us hope and pray will catch the eye of the literary editors and independent bookshops.

I know how hard this business is. Hardback literary fiction was viewed as next to impossible when I entered publishing more than 20 years ago and it hasn’t got any easier. I know publicity - good reviews, some articles to write, some radio to do - is going to be what it needs. I know it won’t get a huge marketing spend and that success, if it comes, will be slow and a bit of a surprise. I know that, essentially, publishing success derives from authorial talent. And that, ultimately, is down to me.

(”Sacrifices” by Michael Fishwick is published by Jonathan Cape.)


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