How I would save the publishing industry

Last month I mentioned an article in the Daily Mail newspaper, which reported that 77 million books were pulped in Britain in 2009.

That article seems to imply that people just aren’t reading books any more. I totally disagree. I think they’re reading just as many books as they always have, but they’re no longer interested in those dreadful “celebrity” books. It’s those that are mostly being pulped, not the “proper” books.

Does anyone really want to read the third autobiography of a vacuous 19-year-old who came second in a TV talent show – and who probably hasn’t even read the book, let alone written it.

‘Ooh, yes!’ said the bookshops, who immediately ordered thousands of them.

‘Great!’ said the publishers, who printed hundreds of thousands of them.

‘No,’ said the celeb-weary public, who either ignored the book, or queued up to get a signed copy and then gave the so-called “author” a smack in the face.

‘Oops,’ said the bookshops, who sent all the unsold copies back to the publishers.

‘Yikes!’ said the publishers, who pulped the lot, and then moaned that nobody reads any books of any kind any more – while desperately trying to ignore/hide the fact that they’ve only published celebrity books for the last few years.

Some of those publishers don’t have jobs any more. And those that do probably won’t be lavishing quite so many millions of pounds / dollars / euros on advances to so-called celebs (or even real ones) for the next few years. Or at least, they won’t if they have any business sense whatsoever – and since they’re all run by accountants now, one assumes they do.

If I was a publisher (which I am!) I would do away with all advances for first books and one-offs, no matter who the author was. They can earn their royalties in the usual way, and then (maybe) receive a modest advance on their second book, depending on how well the first one did.

But what if the second one flops? I’d allow for that too by limiting all advances to a maximum figure that was very much on the cautious side. It certainly wouldn’t be millions. If the book does well, the author still gets the royalties, so what does it matter if the advance isn’t huge?

Celebrity authors undoubtedly have income from other sources anyway. And regular authors probably have salaries from their jobs, or pensions, or something from the government. If they want to give up work and write full time, their advances don’t need to be any higher than their salaries were.

Again, they can make their millions from royalties if their books do well.  And publishers won’t lose their multi-million-pound advances if the books flop. Advances should be just enough to keep the author comfortably alive until the royalties start to come in. (I believe that was their original purpose anyway.)

Massive advances are completely unnecessary. They’re just an example of publishing companies showing off. Most of them are now so poor that they can’t afford to do it. And yet they still do (unbelievably, and despite what I said earlier about them all being run by accountants). This means that most of them are heading for bankruptcy.

And of course they no longer have any money to invest in up-and-coming writers. That’s been the case for several years now. They can’t afford to publish books that might sell only a few thousand copies this year, but might sell by the million in five or ten years when that writer is better known.

If I was a government regulator trying to save the publishing industry, I’d impose a maximum limit on advances. It would be very much on the cautious side – and in line with average salaries – to stop these idiotic publishing companies from trying to outbid each other, offering impossibly large advances, and then going out of business when the books don’t sell.

And there’s another thing I’d do if I was a government regulator trying to save the publishing industry. And that would be to abolish ‘sale or return’. If bookshops buy a book from the publisher or wholesaler then they have to jolly well sell it, not send it back after a few weeks and demand their money back. That should stop publishers from having to print millions of copies when they will only actually sell a few thousand. They can print them in smaller batches, and when they sell out they can print some more.

And perhaps it’s time we brought back the Net Book Agreement too: the price on the cover is the price everyone pays. Then Amazon can’t undercut everyone and force the bookshops out of business, and Waterstones and WH Smith can’t run ‘3 for the price of 2’ promotions. And they can’t sell the latest Dan Brown or Harry Potter for less than it cost them to buy from the wholesaler, in the hope that people will come into the shop and buy other books while they’re there. Which they don’t – which is why bookshops are going bust too.

All of these things are sensible. Which means they definitely won’t happen.

Dave Haslett,


5 thoughts on “How I would save the publishing industry

  1. Quite right, and wholly sensible, Dave – but then there’s not much sense about anymore is there? I say bring back the tea-boy/girl who work their way up to MD and then know everything there is to know about the company, publishing and consumer likes/dislikes – and then put an end to obscene profits for the few so everyone gets a slice of the cake.

  2. Dave, I think any budding writer would applaud your sentiments. The whole thing seems an outrage and an affront to literature as an art form. But it seems to me that before any seismic shift in the attitude of the publishers can take place, they must be aware of what the public actually want to read.

    A few months ago I read an interesting article in the Independent which bemoaned the state of the publishing market. It said the market was always considered to be recession-proof, but for the first time in history it had been hit hard by the recession, and publishers were laying off a number of their authors – even popular ones – in favour of those where sales of a million or more copies could be guaranteed.

    So does this indicate a general decline in book sales (as the article suggested) or does it have more to do with the plethora of celebrity crap that adornes the shelves of bookshops (as you suggest) which deters the more discerning punter?

    If the likes of Waterstones and W H Smith were to undertake some meaningful research we might find out and get a better direction for the industry. And who knows, my own book might even end up on their shelves!

    Sorrry, excuse me while I pinch myself…..

    Keep up the good work! Best wishes..Nick O’Brien

  3. Well said.
    I still prefer a proper book to words on a computer. However, I buy most of my reading matter from Charity shops. Can’t afford book shop prices at the rate I read….

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