Publish… and be damned December 2, 2012Posted by markswill in Media, Politics, Schmolitics.
Once, lots of my friends were journalists and editors, now they seem to’ve become novelists and authors. And at a really good party last night I re-acquainted myself with just about the only person I know who could and would talk candidly to me about the industry that all my bookish friends rely on for their living. Hitherto extremely amusing and professionally sharp, he’s M.D. of one of the few remaining independent outfits publishing topical non-fiction, but fast on his feet though he is, he now gloomily observed that book publishing is in dire straits.
The industry, he claimed, couldn’t figure out how to make money out of digital books because Amazon has a virtual (sic) stranglehold on the market thanks to Kindle. And it can’t figure out how to make money out of printed books because Amazon has a stranglehold on the market due to its aggressive pricing. Amazon also announced last week that despite a fall of 7% in U.K. book sales last year (that’s £1.58billion out of the market), they are following their American parent company’s example and starting their own imprint over here, and have essentially warned authors’ agents to fall into line… or else.
Older readers may remember the ‘Net Book Agreement’ which kept prices uniform across the trade but which ended in 1998 and consequently and subsequently some 2000 independent bookshops have ceased trading, as have the Dillons and Books etc. chains. Amazon, and to a (much) lesser extent Tesco have filled the void, the former pushing their downloadable digital book format which obviates the need for print and paper altogether.
My friend bemoaned that Amazon, who remember barely pay tax in the U.K., are so powerful that traditional publishing houses are paralysed by indecision as to how to address the onslaught. For a while it seemed that the other major retailer of digital literature – and indeed everything else – namely Apple, might prove a durable ally in maintaining profitable price levels for e-books, but they broke ranks earlier this year.
And for those of us that still love to browse in bookshops and physically hold a volume in our hands, last night’s prediction was that in five years time there won’t be any except highly specialist bookshops left. And anyway, many book printers are already going bust so who would print them? When I asked why he just didn’t sell up and retire, he looked at me as if I was an idiot and asked, “Who’d buy it?”
Meanwhile even the successful authors I know are being corralled into marketing meetings where bright young consultants, who evidently haven’t (couldn’t?) even read the books they’ve written, instruct them in the mechanisms of ‘author portals’ which will theoretically make them an integral part of the sales effort. (Novelising is a solitary business and they’d much rather go to a good drinks party to hob-nob with their peers and publishers, rather than submit to a sort of literary FarceBerk). The proliferation of these shiny young things is set against a reduction in the numbers of editors, who are so busy running to and from meetings that they barely have time to edit anyway. Sadly, this is a phenomenon replicated throughout the creative industries – just look at the BBC.
I should declare an interest here: I’ve been trying this past two years to find a publisher for the rollicking take of my nosedive from grace which some of you will know about, and although it involves international illegality, corrupt coppers, glamorous women with multiple identities and much double-crossing, I’ve been unsuccessful in my quest. Self-publishing seems now to be the only option and I was surprised that my friend both commended me to take this route whilst also admitting that “the trade is scared shitless” by it “because it plays into the hands of Amazon.”
Which indeed it does. However…
My start in magazine publishing was facilitated by the invention of the IBM golfball typesetter and the emergence of web-offset printing which allowed idealists and scoundrels to produce periodicals outside the grip of the print unions, hence the underground press of the late 1960s. It was a revolution only slightly less dramatic than the Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press in 1440, and my peers and I obviously fully embraced it. So to complain about the demise of the printed word, as I often do in my blogs, is perhaps myopic, if not hypocritical.
What is different now is that the means of production and distribution, like so much of what I whine about, is concentrated in the hands of a rapidly decreasing number of mega-corporations, in this case perhaps ending up with just one, i.e. Amazon. The power they already wield in commercial terms may be as nothing to the influence they could soon have in terms of content. Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brazil… all those 20th century dystopian visions could soon prove prophetic, and with governments and the economies they rely on for their power so emasculated by a failed and corrupt financial system, who will uphold freedom of speech and therefore, thought?
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