Monday, 22 April 2013

London Book Fair


Last week I went to the London Book Fair. It was my first visit, and it's certainly a spectacular event. It takes up the whole of Earls Court, which is a pretty big building. It's packed with booksellers, publishers, ancillary businesses, even somebody selling reading lights. There's lots of free gifts and hospitality and a general buzz about the place. It's all rather surprising because, corralled in a corner with the other authors, the impression I had was that the publishing industry is in a mess with no one having any real idea what the next year or two holds.

One thing that seems pretty certain is that you're going to find more and more writers producing blogs like this. No one is quite sure how blogs work but authors are now expected to market their own books and social media are definitely an important part of their marketing effort. Or, as one speaker put it, "A necessary evil.” So I guess I'll be turning this out, more or less once a week, for the foreseeable future. It's a good thing I enjoy writing blog posts, as they seem to take time that could otherwise be spent writing books. Still, it's all worthwhile, so long as my blog readers go out and buy my novels. You do buy my novels, don't you?

I'm obviously a complete beginner at this whole blogging thing. According to the same speaker, I should be aiming to have 3,000 Facebook followers. Even allowing that people following the blog are presumably more significant than people following Facebook, I think I have a way to go to build on the fourteen followers the blog has. With over 1,000 pageviews a month I obviously have more than fourteen readers (unless some of you are spending far too much time rereading my stuff). If you are a regular reader, it might be worth joining the site. (Click the blue button towards the bottom of the column on the right of the page.) This may make your life marginally more convenient and apparently will encourage Random House to pick up my next book for a six-figure advance.

In reality, of course, Random House will not be giving me a six-figure advance, even in the unlikely event of their buying my book. Publishers are apparently responding to the changes in market by reserving advances for books they know will sell, which means books by authors who have sold already (good news for Dan Brown fans) and for celebrities who may not be able to write at all but whose books will attract a more or less guaranteed readership from their fan base. And, if debut authors do get an advance, they are increasingly expected to spend some of it on doing marketing that used to be done by the publishers. Hence increasing numbers of writers are deciding that, if they don't get money or sales support from their publishers, they might as well do it themselves. This is one of the factors driving the massive growth in self-publishing. (Note that I'm not self-published. JMS Books is an independent publisher – a sort of half-way house between traditional publishers and self-publishing.) Self-publishing brings its own problems, though. The charming lady who suggested that she could promote my book for £2,000 was honest enough to point out that she was unable to guarantee any boost to sales at all. I shouldn't, she said, pay her the money unless I was prepared to write the whole amount off with no tangible benefit. In the fine tradition of the News of the World, I made my excuses and left.

What conclusions can you draw from all this?

I think it's safe to say that the next few years will see more and more authors producing more and more books. The total number of books that people read will go up, but (thanks to the incredible cheapness of e-books) the amount that is spent will likely decline. The average sales books make, except for a handful of heavily promoted titles, will be tiny. I was told that any book selling over a hundred copies these days should be viewed as a success. Only a tiny proportion (3%, if I recall correctly) will sell more than a thousand copies.

Part of the reason why so many books will have such low readership is that many of them are appallingly badly written. I do the odd bit of reviewing and quite a high proportion of the books I'm sent I do not review as, "This book is barely literate and should be avoided like the plague," is not really a terribly helpful thing to say. Unfortunately, as you trawl through the millions of books available online, separating the wheat from the chaff is becoming increasingly difficult. In theory, this is one of the things that mainstream publishers can do. The fact that a book is published by Penguin or Macmillan should mean that it meets at least a basic quality level. However, when a leading publisher produces a celebrity autobiography by a woman who proudly claims never to have read a book in her life, you have to wonder what quality standards are being imposed. Whether or not you like mummy porn, there is no serious doubt that there are better examples out there than 50 Shades Of Grey, but that hasn't stopped Random House paying E L James a seven figure advance. I think it is fair to say that you will still be on your own trying to find the good stuff in 2014.

Given that mainstream publishers are viewed with increasing suspicion by their authors and offer no quality guarantees to their readers, it's a pretty fair bet that their market is due a major shakeup. We've already seen two of the biggest houses – Random House and Penguin – merging and we can expect to see most second-tier publishers either merging or going under. The winner, of course, will be Amazon. Its infernal star rating system and all those reader reviews provide at least some sort of guidance when you come to choose a book. (Some people might have preferred GoodReads, but since Amazon bought GoodReads, it's likely that the one major challenger to Amazon as an arbiter of reader taste will soon be toeing the party line.) Amazon are moving into publishing themselves and it's a fair bet that most of the recommendations that will pop up when you log into the site will soon be books that they have a direct interest in. This doesn't make them bad people. Amazon have been ahead of the game for a while. Seeing a slot between the new world of digital self-publishing and the old school mainstream behemoths, they are moving into grab it with a single-minded ruthlessness which I can't help but admire. On the other hand, a world in which Amazon is the only significant commercial publisher is likely, in the long-term, to be good news for neither writers nor readers.

It's going to be a tough old world out there. Writers will carry on writing and you, dear reader, will, I hope, carry on buying their books. And an agent expressed the faintest glimmer of interest in something I'd done. So, despite the gloom, we’ll soldier on. People have been telling stories since the dawn of time. I guess we'll probably still be telling them come the London Book Fair 2014.

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