BOOKS / The primal screen: These days we look for fiction in video, not books. Rowland Morgan inspects the figures

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The Independent Culture
IS THE long-awaited death of the novel, which Norman Mailer has said is going the way of poetry, finally at hand? Bookselling's top art-form is under siege from the watchable hardback kind - the sell-through video. A comparison of the sales figures suggests that the novel is close to being detached from a general readership and consigned to marginal, specialist status. Not counting the obvious big sellers by well-known names, the average sale of a new hardback novel has fallen to about 600 copies.

Tie-in packaging is already on the way. It may not be long before the novel's main mass distribution is as a bonus strapped to the back of a video. The first such link - The Last of the Mohicans - goes on sale soon. Soaring numbers of graduates once indicated a big revival for novels, but since 1985, when the first video fiction titles went on sale, the numbers have been decaying: a 250-year-old market looks decrepit.

By contrast, the sell-through video business is taking off like a dream. A dream for film producers, a lucrative bonus after a cinema or TV screening; a dream for retail video marketeers, who can push the product almost anywhere (some boroughs ban sales only in off-licences); a dream for retailers, who can charge what they like (unlike booksellers, whose prices are fixed); and literally a dream for consumers, because when they view a video, their brain-state becomes electrically similar to sleep. By the same token, video-watching requires considerably less effort: a typical 300-page novel takes 200-600 minutes to read, during which six feature films could be viewed.

As a result, the video-print sales war is already over. A forgotten pulp novel by, say, Jim Thompson, might expect to sell 2,000 to 3,000 over several months if repackaged for a cult readership, while a dated blarney drama like The Quiet Man (1952) sells about 1,000 videos a week, with the total well past 700,000 so far. Nothing seems to stop the steady video sellers - such as The Sound of Music. Hits are achieving stampedes: Terminator 2 has sold over 200,000 copies in a few months, Dances With Wolves 155,000, Home Alone 601,744. Recently, a week's video fiction turnover (not counting TV drama) was 392,652 tapes.

It's true that novels can still score a hit with general readers. Bestsellers (especially those supported by films) still exist. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow sold over 300,000 worldwide before the film tie-in, and then the same again. Its sequel, A Burden of Proof, has sold 60,000 British hardbacks and 250,000 world paperbacks in advance of the forthcoming TV mini-series.

But more often, 50,000 hardback sales are the summit of printed fiction's ambition, achieved by one or two annual prizewinners. Meanwhile, sensations occur at all levels of the video fiction market. The public bought 38,000 copies of an 18th- century French verse drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, while Penguin's tie-in edition sold only 11,000. JFK, a three-hour docudrama, sold over 400,000 (Penguin's On The Trail Of The Assassins, their tie-in with JFK, sold 110,000).

In family fiction, Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959) has sold 3.5 million. A 60-day 'special offer' on Fantasia (1940) moved three million copies, grossing some pounds 42m. This year's Christmas release, Cinderella (from 1950), has already sold over 450,000.

Almost from nowhere, retail videos are clocking up a quarter of the whole book market's value, with sales doubling annually. Last year, sell-through video turnover was pounds 375m; gross annual book sales have been running at about pounds 1.4bn. If retail video eventually supplants declining rentals (pounds 544m last year), video gross can be expected to hit pounds 1bn, or 71 per cent of book sales.

Applied to fiction literature alone, the figures look worse. Though only in its infancy, retail video fiction is lagging only a little way behind all printed fiction (that's including 3,000 reprinted titles covering the whole of recorded civilisation). The markets aren't directly comparable, but about 60 per cent of a typical week's video sales are fiction (child and adult), which gives pounds 225m last year. Nineteen per cent of gross book sales are comparable fiction titles (that's including the reprints), which gives pounds 266m, or only 19 per cent more than the electronic competition. If retail video reaches the pounds 1bn mark, about pounds 600m worth of sales will be fiction - more than double the printed fiction market.

How long will it take for two fiction videos to be sold for every fiction book? Video sales figures double each year, so we are looking at two years, maybe three. In terms of ouput, video fiction embraces 3,000 titles a year, compared with 5,700 in print - a remarkable performance, given that video achieves it under the constraint of censorship.

The British Board of Film Classification submits every fiction video (and some non-fiction) to a rigorous code of control, which hands a big advantage to book publishers, for whom obscenity suits were ended by the Lady Chatterley's Lover case in 1959. Inside the Skin of a Lion, by the joint Booker prize-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje, for example, portrays a woman returning her lover's semen to his mouth in a French kiss: such a scene could not be sold on video. Much pulp fiction - the best-selling Destiny by Sally Beaumont, for example, whose heroine indulges in orgies and carries a diamond in her vagina - would not pass the film censor as a video image.

But most of the film censor's cutting is violence, and here book publishers have shown no restraint, putting out 'highbrow' fiction that has caused widespread revulsion, from Ian McEwan to Bret Easton Ellis.

Another impediment to video is costs. A low-budget Channel 4 feature film starts at pounds 500,000. dollars 10m (pounds 6.6m) is considered rock-bottom in Hollywood. Even if cinema and TV receipts are discounted, converting to video is expensive. By contrast, producing 2,000 copies of a hardback novel costs a publisher about pounds 5,000, or less than one-thousandth the cost of a cheap US feature film. Nor do books labour under the burden of 17 per cent VAT: unlike videos, they are exempt.

British publishers seem extraordinarily complacent about all this. They launch few campaigns to encourage novel-reading. They put no collective 'product placement' pressure on the BBC and ITV to portray reading positively - or just to portray it at all. They tolerate a ration of one annual writer's bursary per nine million people from the Arts Council. They have no novel reading or writing promotions in schools and universities; not many tie-ins of original novels (other than series) with TV dramatisations. They don't have new novels on sale in supermarkets, garages, off-licences, news vendors - if they did, W H Smith might stop creaming off a few dozen best-sellers for their quasi-monopoly 500-shop chain, and sales might start catching up with those in the US, where books sell three times more per capita.

Until recently, it seemed that novel sales were holding up, along with the rest of books. Surveys were assuring the book business that the money for videos was coming from other parts of the leisure budget. But the disposable leisure pound can only be divided so many ways. The competition cannot be afforded, and novel sales have crashed.

British publishers' failure to respond to the video challenge has not only induced a crisis for the novel as an art form, but a disaster for our culture of self-reflection. Britons - English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish - are being driven out of their own dreams, because the looming victory of the sell-through video is not just a triumph for electronics, but also one for American writers.

EC-sourced films formed only 10 per cent of British big-screen fare in 1991, and audiences were small, bringing only 1.5 per cent of the box office. Allowing for TV programme sell-through, roughly the same can be assumed to apply to video fiction sales. It means that American writers are producing 90 per cent of the video fiction diet of the British today, and Hollywood producers are taking 98.5 per cent of the money.

When video fiction is reaching an audience many times larger than printed fiction, with almost as many titles, it's hard to see what will happen to English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish writers and the local or national scenes they want to describe, debunk, or even love, before a big audience.