The contraction of the high street and the dynamics of online retailing are putting extra pressure on literary publishers, with subscriptions plummeting to less than half their previous figures.
With Waterstone’s the only high street chain with a literary profile and Amazon working to a sales model with low initial subscriptions, publishers hoping to launch new names are facing particular challenges. Débuts which two years ago would have gained initial subs of 1,000–2,000 copies are now subscribing just 250–500. Established literary writers who would have gained subs of 5,000 copies two years ago are now subscribing just 2,000.
Hamish Hamilton publisher Simon Prosser said: “If you have established names, you can say to the retailers: ‘Look at their sales figures’ but launching new literary authors is a real challenge. You have to be more creative than ever.”
Let’s put aside the usual “What is literary fiction anyway?” nonsense. Here we can assume it’s anything mainstream which is not a perceived genre such as crime, thriller, or chick lit. Yeah, I know literary fiction a genre of its own, but they don’t know that yet. And with all this in mind, this situation is still shockingly bad.
Those numbers aren’t sales, by the way – those subscriptions are just to have copies in stores. They’ve still got to be put in the hands of the buying public, taken to the counter, and paid for. The best way to encourage that nice exchange is for publishers to spend money on promotion, that’s if the chains think it’s worthwhile. It isn’t cheap, either. Amazon charge publishers a packet just to send readers an email about a particular book, for example, and table promotions can cost hundreds of pounds per title. This is all on top of the costs of buying the book, editing it, and putting a pretty picture on the front.
It’s tough for a publisher: they’ve got a talented author they want to push, and that costs money. Lots of money. But how can such costs be justified against subscriptions which are so low?
This is one of many reasons I’m glad there’s a SFF blogosphere – at least we all talk about books and help sidestep a lot of potential pain for new authors.