Sunday, 27 December 2009

Waking up with Dan Brown

By Darren E Laws
So Christmas came and went and all the retail outlets are returning sales figures and stats. While it’s still too early to call it is clear that the book buying public have stayed true to form in purchasing the most popular title of the year during the festive season. The honour going to Dan Brown for ‘The Lost Symbol’ as the book most people found in their Christmas stocking. The bad news is that this title only sold 58,468 copies in the week to Saturday 19th December; this is nearly ⅓ of the titles sold to last year’s biggest seller.
Meanwhile the public appetite for ‘celebrity’ named driven titles seems to drive on with seemingly unabated hunger which is almost as depressing as the dip in sales, the closure of bookstores and the failure of publishing houses to grab the bull by the horns and stop supplying supermarkets with titles at prices which make a mockery of recommended retail prices.
We are moving into a year which may make 2009 seem like a golden year. VAT increases next week, while this won’t have as big an effect on the book trade as other areas it will still impact greatly because anything which reduces consumer spending ability will impact on non-essential purchasing and books, when all is said and done, are non-essential in the grand scheme of putting food on plates and people worrying about remaining in employment.
So why does the industry keep churning out titles using the same business model which had led us to this point? On the 24th December, Borders UK closed its doors along with a number of other industry related companies who have struggled all year against an economic tide which has become a veritable tsunami. Like Border UK some of these companies may not reopen come the New Year. The fault does not lay with the bookstores that are unable to compete with 40 heavily discounted top fiction and non-fiction titles residing in the crop of supermarkets which have had such an impact on the industry but with the business model employed by the major publishing houses who rely on a false turnover of income with titles printed by the thousands and shipped back and forth to bookstores, remainder shops and supermarkets. The fault lies squarely on the shoulders of these publishing houses that are prepared to give away their titles to supermarkets and then complain about the declining state of the industry.
The more publishing feeds supermarkets even with this substantially reduced list of titles the less the consumer will care to venture into book stores and search the thousands of titles available, especially as these stores simply cannot compete on price.
Many people who wake up with Dan Brown this year may not see the supermarket sticker that has been removed. I’m all for fair competition and do not blame the supermarkets for wanting to give a bargain to their customers, but I do squarely lay the blame at the feet of the publishers that continue to readily supply titles at a pittance at the cost of the industry, the author and the vital lifeline to that industry and to the consumer...the book store.
For smaller publishers who do not totally rely on selling thousands of copies through an ever decreasing base of book stores but are learning to embrace new digital platforms, there may be solace, but the bell is tolling for many major publishers and I am sure that we are going to hear a resounding chime that will reverberate through the industry that will shake the industry to its core in 2010.
The question is: Who is the bell tolling for?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Submitting, Sub-missions and Surrender


There is no denying 2009 has been a tough year. I blogged a year ago about the recession and the impact it was going to have on publishing and I have spent the past year talking about the positive aspects which publishers and authors can turn to their advantage. A year on it appears that the impact of the recession is still hurting the retail sector, especially in publishing. The current turmoil at Borders UK shows the severity of a sector in trouble, and many book shops are going to be hoping for a little comfort and joy over the coming holiday season. Supermarkets are doing their utmost to cripple the industry through ridiculously reduced retail prices and even more frighteningly reduced range and options. Publishers are not helping by bowing to their demands the way farmers did. The results of which we have seen in our high streets, towns and villages for the past two decades as local shops – many of them having been established for generations – were forced to close through not being able to complete on price, even if the level of choice, standards, knowledge and understanding of both product and consumer was far superior. What supermarkets don't kill, the lack of flexibility on behalf of landlords and retail business rates will and if we add the submission of the publishing industry to cheapen and give away its products and brand then the future could be very bleak indeed.

It would appear that 2010 is going to be even more challenging a year than the last. A local bookstore close to the town I live in, one which has supported local authors with stocking titles and organising book signings, is closing its doors in a few weeks for the last time after 30 years of service to the area leaving only one chain store and supermarkets as the shoppers choice to purchase books from, not just in that town but the town next to it too.

With the demise of Dillons, Ottakers, Books etc and Borders UK, the outlook does not appear too bright for chain stores let alone the small independents, so what are we left with? A future dominated by one chain store and the supermarkets; Waterstones, appear to have changed its position regarding the way it handles distribution and orders. It is now trying to take on the supermarkets at their own game with promotions that position celebrity novels and teen biographies above genuine new talent. This is commercial suicide unless the approach opens the eyes of consumers in their stores to the increased range over their local ASDA, Morrisons, Sainsbury or Tesco. One thing is for sure, I do not want to be writing about the death of Waterstones in a year's time.

eBooks are being seen as the light at the end of the tunnel and maybe they will realise a genuine revenue stream for authors, publishers and retailers alike, somehow thought I can't see Santa delivering huge numbers of eReaders this Christmas, though I would love to be proven wrong. It appears Amazon is still struggling to get its act together regarding the Kindle in the UK and Sony is not capitalising on the strong market share it should have established here over the past year.

With all this turmoil happening is it any wonder more and more authors are going down a self-publishing route. This is one of the few growing trends in the industry and possibly the one which may be the most worrying for established publishers. Knowing what is involved in setting up a company and taking a book from conception to birth and then on to graduation, I understand the work involved and it is not something I would actively encourage, unless the author has a huge support network; having said that I can understand the frustration with an industry which seems set on pushing the self-destruct button. Our own submission season this year which usually runs for a minimum of three months is closing after only 30 days. The reason why is down to the huge numbers of submissions we have received and to allow us to stay on top of things and provide a decent return time for the authors, be it yes or no.

We hope to open our books again in the New Year, once we have had a chance to review each and every manuscript, but if we reach our target with this batch then nothing will happen again until November 2010at the earliest. The one thing I can say about this year's submissions is that the standard has improved tremendously since last year. I don't know the reasons for this, maybe like wine it is just a good year with the right conditions to deliver a vintage year. Or maybe it is the result of the larger publishing houses cutting back acceptance letters through budget restraints and culling their current long lists...who knows?

What I do know is that for all authors' life is getting harder on all fronts and in some respects the same can be said of publishers and retailers. So maybe now is the time to stop trying to commit commercial hari-kari and have the gumption to set realistic recommended retail prices which actually mean something and stick to them. People willingly part with between £10 and £20 for a film on DVD which will give two hours entertainment. Yet publishers seem unwilling to stand by an rrp of under £10 for a novel which will give many more hours entertainment. I would not like to know the author's royalty payment on a novel sold in a supermarket for £1.99, but I do know you would need to sell a hell of a lot to make it viable.