discussions writing & publishing

Publishing’s Freeze

And I thought I was the one writing about ice ages:

But how much trouble is the British publishing industry really in?

Certainly publishers are frozen. The rate of announced acquisitions in this country has dropped to an extraordinary low over the last year. The US, a market that is five – six (let’s be generous) times our size has deals running at a rate of 25-30 a day; in the UK it is less than one a day.

Traditionally at this point publishers talk about lack of retail outlets, tough market conditions etc.

All no doubt true enough, but when has the market been anything but tough? How about this: there’s an almost total industry wide loss of editorial confidence? UK publishers are deeply unsure about what they should be publishing any more…

The trouble is that sales marketing and publicity only want what’s already popular. Really they’d just like to republish last year’s successful books. In theory publishers hire editors to judge what the trends are going to be two years from now.

That involves making mistakes. The only books that the committee will ever feel entirely happy about acquiring are either by celebrities, brand authors or New York Times bestsellers: books that represent the lowest possible risk and the probable death of British publishing.

That’s from the Bookseller, too. I can’t imagine a more pessimistic outlook for struggling writers, which just goes to hammer home the fact that – first and foremost – you should write because you enjoy the process of writing. I used to think that you should write because you want to be read, too, but I’m never sure how quixotic that is these days.

My other tip – to minimise the chances of being rejected – has always been to get into a bookshop to get a flavour of what editors are looking to buy. I wrote about it a couple of years ago. I know it has the whiff of selling out, but it’s not meant to be – more of a reality check that publishing is a business. Given such a bleak outlook, I think those thoughts still make a great deal of sense.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

13 replies on “Publishing’s Freeze”

Surprised at the bookseller peddling the old ‘its them and us’ lie about sales and marketing. The sales and marketing people in any publisher are there because they love selling and marketing books. If they just loved selling and marketing they’d be off doing it somewhere better paid. I get really tired of this lazy slur against people who love books just as much as editorial do. Yes the market is tough but sales and marketing don’t make it harder for authors. The Bookseller perpetuating this myth helps no-one, least of all authors, who will read this and come away thinking that its only some faceless corporate wonk standing between them and glory.

Simon – I’m not sure that it says they’re not. It’s basically innuendo about the very real sales pressures, or at least that’s how I read it. I know that my agent has always banged on about this force of sales and marketing, too (irrespective of the facelessness!). How does the pressure differ between Hachette’s other imprints?

Hmm… I’m torn, I suppose.

I think that the lack of retail outlets does have something to do with it. Borders went bust, WHSmith is almost offensively expensive and most people will just see books (In a store) in Tesco or where ever they may get their food. Why should I, as a consumer, pay £8 for a book in Tesco when I can log onto Amazon and get it for half of that?

I think there is saturation going on, though, but in the wrong places. The shelves are filled with trashy romance novels, YA Paranormal fiction about sparkly vampires and werewolves, books Richard & Judy think you must read – Books you’d only read if there was nothing else on the market.

Terry Pratchett does so well, in my opinion, because he’s practically the only “mainstream” fantasy author who writes comedic fantasy with any regularity. There’s a whole market there waiting to be tapped, and no publisher’s trying to go for it despite his books selling incredibly well.

I can see why publishers follow the trends, and I don’t blame them, but what we truly need is a group of authors who are going to redefine genres. We need a new Stephen King, a new Pratchett, a new Cornwell, Erskine and so forth.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Viva la revolucion? :p

No, it pretty much states that its editorial’s job to take chances and sales and marketing’s job to prevent chances from being taken. It’s simply not true. It’s sales and marketing’s job to sell and market books. They love the opportunity to do that with someone new and exciting (let’s face it a debut is easier to sell than a second or third book; no track record, the shininess of the new etc etc)and will absolutely give it their best shot. There has always been sales pressure (we are a business, not a charity and thank god). The ‘dead hand’ of sales and marketing is too often used as an excuse for the book’s performance not quite matching the author’s or the agents (or let’s be honest, the editor’s) ambitions. We’re all in this together; if we start blaming sales and marketing for our difficulties we’re in danger of not looking with a clear mind at where the problems really lie. It’s lazy thinking.

Simon – if agents are saying such things – in a public, industry-centric place – this myth must spawn from somewhere (though I genuinely think the tone of the piece is a little tongue in cheek and deliberately controversial).

I’d be interested, have you ever liked a book and had a sales team decline it? Because I’ve even received that rejection excuse myself, and understood – having being an editor with Solaris, we genuinely knew the sales pressures and had to choose very wisely (not having that much cash to splash). We had to buy core SFF and not as much experimental stuff – because of the sales pressures involved. The article is saying the same thing as that – but the tone is probably trying to wind people up.

Dwagginz – yeah, it’s supermarkets and one end, Amazon at the other, and bookstores being squeezed in the middle. The added problem is that publishers have to pay a fortune in order to get the books in offers on tables. (Simon will know how eye-watering the Amazon rate card is.)

As for Pratchett, I think Publishers have tried to put more comic fantasy out there, with limited successes.

I’m curious about the stats in this one because I’d have thought that acquisitions includes established authors getting new contracts.

Could it just be that a lot of authors are getting locked in for more books when they sign so there is little in the way of new deals are more lists are locked up until 2011/12?

Not sure I follow that logic, Gav. Surely that implies authors have never received a multi-book deal before?

I think also such things depend on the publisher in question. Some have an attitude where they want to build an author carefully, over time, and their slots will fill quickly – so after a few years they probably accept one or two new authors a year. Others want to throw dozens of new writers against the wall to see what sticks, and stay with those ones. I exaggerate of course, but you get the picture.

I was thinking more of deals in general for new and established authors more books when they do sign. For example if you have a another 3 books on your deal we might not hear about any new acquisitions for you for 2 years. Or Alastair Reynolds might not get any announcement until 2018 on his 10 book deal?

So there aren’t less books just less announcements of books.

Though I see lots of new books by new to me authors though some are deals from established authors elsewhere in the world with a ready made back catalogue.

Oh great! Way to cheer up my evening, Mark! 😉

I think I’ve got it sorted though: All I need to do is write characters better than Abercrombie, descriptions more beautifully than Lynch, create worlds better than Tolkien, and write prose more more solid than GRRM. Add a splash of China Mieville, and a fantastic story and I’m done. Simples!


Think I’ll go and have a lie down in a darkened room! I feel the start of an onset of depression. 😉

This signals to me that what we might see in the near future is a boom in English-language SF/F in growing international markets (namely India and China). That might be a silly guess on my part, but I see it happening (there are some English-language writers who make a decent living selling only to China and similar markets, so it’s not that far out there to think that the enormity of the potential reading population of China and India might lead to a new haven for English-language writers).

Still, very depressing to hear that things aren’t looking so hot in the UK. The sad thing is that we’ve brought at lot of it on ourselves. We put so much attention into all these reality shows and other nonsense, and the result is a continuation of…waste.

But, again, maybe I’m just crazy for thinking something like that…

We better hope our colleagues in sales and marketing are selling a lot of the ‘unimaginative’ stuff – it’s that stuff that bankrolls the more experimental, edgy books that get published. Is anyone to blame for edgy and experimental stuff not selling much? It is, afterall, edgy and experimental and wouldn’t remain such if it became amazingly popular. If authors want to be edgy and experimental I (and sales and marketing) will back them to the hilt. Complaints from said authors that people find them edgy and experimental and therefore aren’t buying them will be met with a raised eyebrow in all quarters.
Sales and marketing will back great writing but they will also seek to be realistic about what they can sell of such writing. It’s then up to publisher, agent and author to agree a sensible level of advance that can be supported by likely sales. Sales directors only tend to say no when editorial are proposing to pay silly money for a book that has a limited market. And even then its only one voice. The chair of the publishing meeting is usually a publisher…

The real trouble facing the publishing industry is not what sort of book people are reading and whether sales and marketing people are stopping the good stuff from getting to them. The real problem is falling literacy rates and the perception that reading a book is an anachronistic activity that no-one has time for anymore. Squabbling over our share of the remaining market is not the solution. Growing that market might be.

I thought Sarah Pinborough made a really interesting comment about writing to trends at FantasyCon. She observed (paraphrasing) that if you have a story you want to write then does it really matter if you set it as fantasy, crime or horror? The story stays the same, it’s just some details that change so that the setting fits with the current market and your story goes out.
It’s not selling out to be aware of the market and to play up those elements of your manuscript, as long as it’s still a story you want to write.

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