Reasons to be cheerful: Leaders in the business of books reveal what they are optimistic about
Friday 07 January 2011
Publishers, I was told by an august member of that tribe soon after I first wrote about them, are exactly like farmers. Whatever the weather, whatever the harvest, they just love to moan. Much in the world of books has changed since that moment, but not the propensity to grumble. During 2010, the "we're all doomed" tendency fed us on a bumper crop of of gloomy prognostications. Will almost-free digital distribution drain cash and credit out of the entire book-supply system? Do electronic books as a whole threaten to bankrupt publishers and pauperise authors? Has the spread of new media destroyed an appetite for reading any text tougher than a tweet among the born-digital generation?
Can anybody stop Google (with Amazon and Apple not far behind) seizing control of humanity's written heritage and using it to promote their partisan corporate agendas? Will independent high-street booksellers, well-stocked local libraries and reasonable advances for authors who don't appear on TV fade into the mists of bookish history, along with quill pens and lazy lunches? And can we ever hope to resist the takeover of publishing by celebrity clout when our Christmas chart-topper – Jamie Oliver's Jamie's 30-Minute Meals - comes from an author who cheerily admits that "I've never read a book in my life, ever, apart from my own". Respect to the recipes, though.
So book lovers need to embark on a chapter of hope. Every new year, John Brockman of the online intellectual powerhouse Edge (www.edge.org) asks its virtual community of scientists and social thinkers one question. In 2007, it was this: "What are you optimistic about?" To strike a less than despondent chord this January, I put the same question to a few people in the British book world who are best placed to know. Read their answers on these pages.
My own reasons to be cheerful overlap with the responses. But it could be that subjective factors may favour the survival of a culture of the written word, whatever happens on the ever-stormy seas of technological innovation and consumer economics. So far as we can see, e-books will mean smaller rewards for many authors. The "winner takes all" and "long tail" forces of the hi-tech cultural industries generally mean feast for the few, and famine for the many – but also new markets, and new audiences, for "niche" literature old and new.
Yet writing, and reading, have in this literary climate strong social foundations that it will take more than the odd upheaval in gadgetry and finance to shake. Even in an era of austerity – especially in such an era – authorship implies authority, and authenticity. Leathery rock idol, tanned former PM, fresh-faced family-friendly comic: the famous of all species must cement every new step in their career in place with a book, ghosted or otherwise. Whatever you think of the standard of these tomes, they all pay homage to the magic of print.
Readers flock to literary festivals in numbers that no one could have predicted even a decade ago. They seek not to ogle some celeb (well, not chiefly) but to join the republic of letters: a live space, and a free space, far from the media norm of spin, flannel and hype. A pundit in one paper fumed last week that the "chattering classes" – ie Philip Pullman, Carol Ann Duffy and the like - had forced the Coalition to back down over funds for children's book-gifting schemes. Praise be. Much-loved authors command a level of trust and respect among huge constituencies that the average banker or politician (let alone journalist...) would die, or kill, for.
As long as taste-makers in education, the press, broadcasting and other public institutions keep their faith in new books and their begetters, those precious assets of voice and visibility will not be squandered. Whether the sums will add up for much professional literature remains another matter. The age of multi-platform publishing promises no easy fix for the plight WB Yeats called "that old perplexity, an empty purse" - nor to its corollary for authors with silver tongues and shallow pockets: "the day's vanity, the night's remorse". Still, for as long as a highly cerebral memoir by a foreign politician can grow into a barnstorming bestseller for an indie publisher, the book world should be allowed the audacity of hope.
Chief Executive, Faber & Faber
The second decade of the century is already likely to be characterised by an explosion in ways you can read, and therefore perhaps in approaches to writing. It will also see new dynamics in how readers find what they want to read and how writers engage with their readership. The real story is that writing and reading are rich parts of our culture getting richer, and that is genuinely exciting. One aspect of this may be the light that we can shine on niche interests and tastes as e-books and the conversation online cut the costs of distributing through the mass market and allows a wider range of writing to find readers. This could benefit areas, among others, such as literary fiction, poetry and translated work.
I'm also highly optimistic about the role smaller, independent publishers can play in finding readers for writers, and for creating value in their work. The real value publishers offer is in a specialised ability to help authors to create the best work they can, to know and discover audiences for that work – and that no longer only means placing it front of store in a bookshop. And they know how to create fair value for the work in many different ways – including physical and digital books, but also all manner of other formats and channels. Small companies and imprints can do this with great focus. All this began in earnest in 2010, and will accelerate in 2011 and beyond.
Managing Director, Canongate Books
"Basically I am an optimist because the great myth of the person who tells another person a story won't disappear that quickly. There will always be someone who feels the need to tell a friend one of his ideas or one of her dreams." I heard these inspiring words of Federico Fellini's some years back, and have always found them to be a consoling reminder of the importance of stories, of sharing them and spreading them. And what the UK book industry is doing by giving away 1,000,000 great books to 1,000,000 people on 5 March, World Book Night, is an inspiring initiative that gives me hope for the coming year. Anyone can become to be a giver, so why not apply? (www.worldbooknight.org/)
Publisher, Virago Press
Every publisher is a gambler and an eternal optimist. We always believe there is something wonderful coming around the corner. And though things are undoubtedly tough, I still take great pleasure and interest in that hope. I believe in the sheer inventiveness of our industry - I think that World Book Night on
5 March is going to be an extraordinary, imaginative extravaganza - and in the endless genius and imagination of writers. I have faith in authors and I have faith in readers. I have seen too much evidence that shows us that books continue to matter, that good writing will move and nourish us. That essential fact is not going to change.
Managing Director, books, Curtis Brown agency
E-day arrived on Christmas Day 2010, with Random House US reporting a 300 per cent increase in e-book sales. The explosion of this new format will revitalise backlists of authors and should allow experimentation among book buyers. Unlike the music industry, we have a new market, albeit of decreased value, and that should be celebrated. 2011 will be year the publishing world will have to think on its feet, and that should be exciting.
Director of Literature Strategy, Arts Council England
We know from our Taking Part Survey that more people read than take part in any other arts activity. Over 60 per cent of the British population reads for pleasure and more people are going to book events and festivals. Prizes like the Forward Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Orange Prize for first novels highlight the real diversity of what is available. Writers are going to continue to bring real pleasure to so many people next year, which will be increasingly important if other parts of life are harder.
Executive Director, Bloomsbury Publishing
I'm optimistic about quality publishing. Certainly, the market for trivialisation has not abated, and there are many tricky issues being confronted by high-quality literary publishers - but good books not only sell but continue to be read many years after first publication. These books will most readily adapt to new means of digital distribution and readers will still wish to keep them in hardback and paperback - notwithstanding the copy they consult on their e-readers. And it is these authors who will find more frequent ways of communicating with their readers through festivals, blogs, tweets, social networks. Who wants to discuss books with a ghost writer or a B-list celebrity? Finally, my tip for quality novel of 2011 is Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English.
Chief Executive, Random House UK
Storytelling remains core to what we do as publishers and storytelling, delivered in any form, helps us define our emotional lives and enrich our culture. Sales of digital books have reached a tipping point, and I am encouraged by the creative opportunities digital devices allow us to enhance the reading experience and increase our reach.
But the physical book remains central to our activities and I rejoice that the public discovered unexpected gems last year such as Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. Jo Nesbo's riveting The Snowman and The Leopard became the bestsellers they have always deserved to be, and in 2011 I hope Nordic crime lovers will discover the very different wonders of Arnaldur Indridason. New voices always excite – I love Anthony Quinn's Half the Human Race, a novel based on the Suffragette movement, and Rachel Simon's exquisitely moving The Story of a Beautiful Girl, about the experience of disability. Across Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen is a true story of three generations of Tibetan women giving us an insight into Tibet's mysterious and violent history. We also have new books to look forward to from Haruki Murakami, Michael Ondaatje and Julian Barnes, and new thrillers from Robert Harris and Lee Child. Books can give guidance, too, and Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life could well transform a nation's behaviour, if read by all.
Managing Director, Waterstone's
The trade may be going through some tough times, but that doesn't affect creativity - the book world's greatest weapon. Great debut novels abound, as we will unveil on 20 January with the first Waterstone's 11; and brilliant, visionary, inspired ideas like World Book Night (on 5 March) will keep people talking about, as well as reading, books throughout the year and beyond.
Publisher, Hamish Hamilton
Hamish Hamilton's founder, Jamie Hamilton, famously said "I am a publisher, a hybrid creature: one part stargazer, one part gambler, one part businessman, one part midwife and three parts optimist". My optimistic three parts are particularly excited by the success of new independent booksellers like Lutyens & Rubinstein; the resurgence of literary magazine publishing (of which our own Five Dials is a part); the flourishing of that especially British phenomenon, The Festival (despite our weather) - and, most of all, by the numbers of people I see on the Tube with their noses still stuck in books.
Managing Director, Profile Books
For many publishers (including Profile) 2010 was better than 2009, with book sales up in the UK and internationally. Sure, there are grave difficulties in bookselling and not every business is going to survive. And only a fool would deny that the digital world creates new challenges. But we are reaching more readers than ever before, and with hardbacks, paperbacks, audio and now e-books we have even more opportunity to get people reading. For the short term, the future for books, writers and reading is encouraging. No one can predict the medium term and, as Keynes so helpfully reminded us, in the long term we are all dead anyway.
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