Shelf Life – news from around the book business

Words taken from London Wall Publishing

As we celebrate the centenary of the war to end all wars, so the publishing industry’s own ‘world war – the by now famous dispute between Amazon and the Hachette Group – is entering its fourth month.  Maybe it will be over by Christmas.  Maybe there will be poems: ‘If I should die, think only this of me;/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever stuck in terms negotiations…’  Maybe there’ll be a Christmas Day truce, with staff from the two companies playing football in the streets of Seattle before resuming hostilities…

Well, of course, it’s not actually a world dispute – it is just the US branches of Amazon and Hachette that are involved.  But certainly the whole publishing world is watching it with interest.  One welcome aspect of what is essentially a long (very long) argument about the final price of ebooks (as well as a tedious tussle over percentage points and payments for visibility on the site) is the highlighting of the importance of authors.  The people who are emerging with the strongest voice in all this are neither the retailer nor the publisher: it’s the writers.  From James Patterson and David Baldacci to Anita Shreve and Donna Tartt, writers have emerged to say “Enough!  Don’t make us the victims in this war [by suggesting customers try ‘similar’, cheaper-priced titles from other authors].”  And that is surely a good thing.  Content isn’t just king; it’s the content creator who is king – and queen.

Each month the book industry sees a welter of announcements and changes.  Each month?  More like each day.  The advent of the Net and digitisation has brought more change to the industry in the last ten years than in the previous fifty.  It makes participants exhilarated and apprehensive at the same time.  At the moment, while one set of discussions is taking place on the selling price of ebooks, another group is bypassing selling altogether and is looking at access, as opposed to ownership.  Subscription services are a growing force in the industry now, with HarperCollins recently inking a deal with US book rental service Scribd that will see 3,500 of the publisher’s backlist titles go live on its database later this summer.

It’s another example of the way the traditional modus operandi of the industry – publisher to retailer to consumer – is being challenged.  Frequently dubbed Netflix or Spotify for books, subscription services offer access to ebooks for a monthly fee, and more are emerging the whole time.  They demonstrate how, in the digital world the very notion of ownership is being redefined.  In a digital world, what exactly do you own?

Equally though, sometimes it only seems as if everything is different; when you probe a bit further, it’s often the same thing, only dressed in different clothes.  Thus although self-publishing has grown in popularity, people like Orna Ross of the Alliance of Independent Authors will always advise new writers to have their manuscripts professionally read.  Someone else may advise on marketing; someone else may design a cover.  Put all these services under one roof and what do you have?  A traditional publisher.

And here’s novelist and former Collins Publisher Hannah MacDonald, who has just set up non-fiction house September Publishing, talking about self-publishing in The Bookseller.  “It seemed logical, but I reacted against the idea with a useful, clarifying vehemence.  I did not wish to publish myself because I wanted people I respected to edit, advise and support my writing…A good publisher or editor’s relationship with an author is partly professional, partly intimate.  The very personal nature of editorial selection and support cannot be replicated within a digital behemoth or a self-publishing system.”

Finally, some heart warming news of a new writer’s success.  Waterstone’s bookseller James Rice, who works at the Southport branch, has just had his debut novel Alice and the Fly accepted by Hodder.  “The thought of a publishing deal thrilled me,” he told the Bookseller.  “I’d invested a sizeable chunk of my youth writing this novel and it would mean that all my hard work had paid off.”

Nevermind that part of his publisher’s parent company is involved in that dispute with Amazon.  Send up the Vary lights!  Come out of No Man’s Land.  Rice is part of the fraternity now – and is lighting the way for others.


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