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Publish… and be damned December 2, 2012

Posted 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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1. John Rushworth - December 2, 2012

The ‘old’ you is now certainly back. Hurrah! I do hope you publish your book. Indeed I too had an exciting girlfriend, with fame and other ‘interests’ that may make an entertaining read. I await your no doubt far better written book, for tips though first…..

2. nigel bull - December 2, 2012

Look on the bright side (sort of). When you are as large and dominant as Apple, Amazon and Google, there is only one way to go. Microsoft is a recent example. Whether their replacements will improve out lot is a different question, but probably just a different player shinning further up the greasy pole of life and holding us to another ransom.

There is in fact far more published now than has ever been, but it’s just in a different form……..like this blog for example. The quality of it is of course a subjective issue, but the pics for example available on many except yours(!) are far better than the filled-in mono’s of your Yamadale in an early Bike mags, so it’s not all bad news.

The Folio Society will indeed one day be a thing of the past, which will sadden me. We do, however, have such strong Lemming-like tendencies that are destroying our fragile planet at a rate of knots, it’s our whole outlook that needs changing and soon, or in a few years the complaints of the well-meaning and enlightened few may well look as indulgent as Nero’s music making!

3. nigel bull - December 2, 2012

Vanity publishing has been around for years. Think running out of road for example! Now you have a real story to tell, I cannot see a lack publisher stopping you. It’s a story I have always wanted to see more meat on the bones of my knowledge, so go for it, you have one sale at least. Think Mr Nice with less luck and sales, but prehaps more wit in the prose!

markswill - December 2, 2012

Well Nigel, Running Out of Roads #1 and 2 weren’t vanity publishing per se – they made money! But thanks for the kind words. As for my next volume, well we shall see.

4. Peter Silverton - December 2, 2012

monopolies are the inherent logic of capitalism (or at least that is what charlie m and freddie e taught me) but within monopoly lies the seed of its own destruction – as your (perfect) example of the ibm (corporate giant) golfball undermining the corporate giants of magazine publishing – eg ipc’s nme was creation from the ashes of oz/it etc – plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (l’autre chose aussi, pas?)

markswill - December 2, 2012

Good point about IBM, Pete, but they are still around, and Oz and It certainly aren’t!

5. cyclepalestine - December 2, 2012

The rich corporations get richer as we, the middle-class intelligentsia get poorer. They steal our jobs and our wealth. No immediate solution I’m afraid.

markswill - December 2, 2012

What was that slogan we muttered back in the underground press daze, George, “No solution without Revolution” ?!

6. hed maginnis - December 2, 2012

Shit, I’d buy that.

As for digital. I may be well into old fart territory here. But why didn’t the publiishers having seen what happened to the devaluation of music take digital head on with, buy the physical book and get a code for the digital one for a quid or something. Everybody’s happy. Rather than cart a ton of books when travelling. I hand a list of stuff I’ve bought and am happy to read again (or get around to reading) to a friends genius nipper and he gets beer. I get travelling copies of the books I already own.
Digital’s great, but a house without books is an empty one.
A tablet full of books and music is great for dumping into a pocket or a backpack.

7. WTK - December 3, 2012

I would suggest there is more being published today than all the years before, but there is a distinct lack of editors and what writer was a writer without a great editor? Fact checking be damned…it’s all about volume today and not the quality of the music. Caveat Emptor…

Dan Quick - December 7, 2012

Spot on that man.

We probably all have a great oeuvre in us somewhere, but modern publishing does not work like that.

There is no longer a great editor to got to, who will make your work “legend”

Publish , or be damned, modern tech has pushed us back pre-Guttenheim.

It doesnt have to be Farenheit 451 – there is still value in words, just via a different medium!

8. Norman gunston - December 3, 2012

Relieved to see the celery seed enemas finally worked.
As an elderly gay man living alone with his mother and a frequent user of the Powys Police Tip Hot Line, I eagerly await your forthcoming autobiography. It might finally end the controversy over the authorship of Riot in Cell Block #9.

markswill - December 3, 2012

Wotta laff riot you are, Bazza.

9. Steve Kane - December 5, 2012

Hi Mark I tried to contact you on your website – no joy – I am on stevemkane(at-a-famous-search-engine)mail.com, am very well and would like to say “Hi” in more detail via email. Great to find you – I was talking to an old skateboarder on facebook who makes and sells parts for 90s Ducatis – and why did I suddenly remember the lean black-clad form. BTW I lost more than 20kg this year – never been so lean since Rathbone Place.
I’ve subscribed here – pleased to find that against all the odds, old age and self abuse, dementia is still held well at bay.
Steve Kane.

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