Fishing lines: The cheap edition, sir? £425, please

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The Independent Online

A publishing phenomenon is sweeping through angling - the book you will never get a chance to read. It reached a new stage this week with news that a book on fishing flies has sold out before it is even published.

It is due to be officially launched at the Flyfishers' Club tomorrow, but I fear the occasion will be a bit of a damp squib. Its publisher, the urbane Timothy Benn, hasn't got any left. The Trout-fly Patterns of John Goddard sold out weeks ago.

Let me assure you that the book does not contain salacious stories of Goddard's dealings with stoneflies, or even pictures of him cavorting with caenis. It's a heavyweight entomological work, whose only illustrations are artificial flies. To compound the mystery, it sells for a whopping £425 - and that's just the cheap version.

Once upon a time, anglers read loads of books. Bernard Venables' Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing sold more than two million copies, making it the best-selling sports book of all time. Even very average books sold 15,000 or more. It was a golden age.

Then it all changed. The books weren't any better or worse, but anglers stopped buying them. An author with an angling-book idea was as popular as malaria. The economics just didn't add up.

This gave rise to a new breed of publisher. Instead of the "pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap" philosophy, they took a more precise approach. Companies such as the Flyfishers Classic Library, Medlar Press and Little Egret Press stopped printing tens of thousands. They even stopped printing thousands. If you want a copy of Medlar's Something Fishy, by Phil Woodhall, you need to move fast. Just 498 were printed.

With a short run, costs go up. But publishers found that anglers don't mind paying for a finely bound limited edition. They added on a few bound in leather or even salmon skin at five times the price, and found that these went first. Get them signed by the author, and they prove even more popular. As insurance, publishers take advance orders for books. Once this figure reaches the break-even point, the publisher prints the book. It's a nice little business, and everyone is happy.

But not everyone. Goddard's trout-fly book, printed by Creel Press, has taken this to an extreme length by printing fewer than 50 classy copies. Benn, the former owner of Press Gazette, the journalists' trade paper, knows a thing or two about publishing, but he got this one wrong. He asked me to publicise it in my magazine Classic Angling, then rang to say: "Er, forget it. We've sold out."

The book has never received any publicity. But there are none left, and there is a waiting list of people who want one.

So where will it all stop? Well, I'm taking advance orders for my new book now. I'm printing just 10, and it will cost, oh, £5,000. I'll sign them too. Twice, if you like. Now I've just got to think of a subject.