In The Observer today, Victoria Glendinning laments the lack of appetite among publishers for serious biography nowadays. In particular, she points out that publishers no longer pay the kind of advances on royalties that they used to. Indeed, and a good thing too. The level of advances had got ridiculous, with publishers seemingly only too willing to throw good money after bad in their desire to get one over on their competitors. In the end the house of cards had to come crashing down, and it certainly did.
Take the David Blunkett diaries, for instance. OK, not strictly biography, but the book was symptomatic of the malaise that had afflicted the industry. Bloomsbury had decided it wanted to get into the political biography market so it bid a ridiculous amount of money for a book which was never going to be a huge seller. The advance was somewhere in the region of £250,000 and that didn't include newspaper serialisation rights. Blunkett trousered close to £400,000 in all for a book which sold around 5,000 copies. Work out the finances on that for yourself.
Victoria Glendinning makes the point that for professional biographers it is difficult to eke out a living nowadays. She got an advance of £10,000 for her latest book, a biography of David Astor. In 1992 she go £50,000 for a similar book on Cyril Connolly.
In part this is also due to the amount of money being thrown at celebrity autobiographies by the big publishers. They do it because some of them can sell serious numbers. But for every celebrity autobiography which becomes a bestseller there are another dozen which flop and lose their publishers a huge amount of money - not just the advance, but the massive amount devoted to marketing.
All this means that the bigger publishers, like Macmillan, HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House and Simon & Schuster, have decided that the non-celebrity biography is one to steer clear of unless they can be more or less 100% confident that they can sell at least 10,000 copies in hardback.
But all this means that publishers like my company, Biteback, are now being offered books by authors and agents which even five years ago would have been way out of our range. But we are not changing our business approach to accommodate them. I'm simply not prepared to try to compete with big publishers on advances. Indeed, we don't pay any advances at all on the majority of books we take on. We can't and won't, because the business model for a publishing company like ours can't cope with advances beyond a few thousand pounds. And I mean a very few.
It's not that we are being mean spirited. It's just that sales levels can't justify it. We'd all love to get that elusive best seller, but in the real world we all live in we know that it's unlikely to happen. The world of bookselling is a very different beast to that which existed even eight years ago. Then, there were a multitude of bookshop chains - Waterstone's, Dillons, Ottakers, John Smith, Blackwells, W H Smith and one or to other regionals. Now there is one - Waterstone's. Even W H Smith has more or less reduced itself to the lowest common denominator.
The simple truth is that if Waterstone's won't stock a book as core stock, and put it in each of its stores, you have virtually no chance of a book selling beyond a couple of thousand copies. Of course, Amazon is crucial too, but the fact that it doesn't really have a serious online competitor gives it enormous buying power, leading to smaller publishes feeling as if they have been bulldozed.
In addition, small publishers are forced to accept deals which they know are fiercely uncompetitive. But if Waterstone's, W H Smith or Amazon demand 60% discount there's little scope for negotiation. And in the case of the first two, they often demand a "promotional" spend too just to even stock the book. For many publishers it has become the economics of the mad house.
So we are all asking ourselves, if e-Books might be the saviour of the publishing industry? In theory they could cut out the middle man (i.e. the bookshop) and be sold directly to the public. But, in theory, that is also the same for physical books, and most publishers don't do much direct bookselling. At Biteback we are about to dip our toes into the e-Book market. We've signed a deal with Amazon who appear to about to be become a monopoly supplier of e-Books. But no one really knows the price level at which to pitch e-Books. The consumer is canny enough to work out that if there aren't any print costs, the price should be lower, but some of the bigger UK publishers continue to stick their heads in the sand and try to charge the full retail price. But the economics of e-Books appear to stink. Say we charge £5 for a paperback whose bookshop price would be £10. Amazon will take 60% of the £5, leaving £2 left, of which £1 goes to the author. That doesn't leave an awful lot for the publisher, does it? If sales levels of e-Books is higher than that for physical books, then it might all work, but at the moment it is unclear if that will be the case, and how long it will take to get there.
All of this means that small to medium sized publishers are having to become far more innovative in the way they market and sell their books. This ought to be a huge opportunity for independent bookshops to step up to the breach and fill the gap vacated by the big chains who have all merged into one or gone out of business. But so far they show few signs of doing so.
All of this might sound a bit downbeat and depressing. But for me it's not a threat it's a real opportunity. We know there is a tremendous appetite for reading and good, quality literature in this country. All we have to do is figure out how best to exploit it.