The unbearable smugness of the book business


Related Topics

Had I been too obtuse? A touch sanctimonious, maybe? Had we all been guilty of pussyfooting about when some full-blooded stomping had been required? As the eminent and the up-and-coming dined, danced, flirted and networked at the closing dinner of the year's great gathering of booksellers and publishers in Brighton, I found myself wondering whether we in the author team might have played our hand better.

The annual Booksellers Association conference is not perhaps the most glittering and widely publicised event in the literary calendar but, in its way, it matters a great deal. Here the top guns from the mighty publishing corporations and book chains rub shoulders with delegates from the smaller independent shops, talking of mergers and discounts, e-commerce and niche marketing. Into this event - part-lovefest and part-seminar - there were a few sessions to remind the conference that the product under discussion was special, that, as publishers like to say whenever the threat of VAT looms, "books are different".

On the last afternoon, a team of three authors, Sarah Dunant, David Caute and myself, and one champion of authors, Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors, was to lead a discussion entitled Beyond the Bestseller Culture.

The idea, to be honest, was to stir things up a bit. An unmistakable air of smugness has descended upon the book business of late, the direct result of its domination by a small number of powerful conglomerates. Publishing, now an enthusiastic contributor to the celebrity culture, has become bolder, brasher, more heartless and more focused than ever before: mega-agents sell mega-authors to mega-publishers who negotiate mega-displays in the mega-bookshops.

There would be nothing wrong with that (only the very pure or very foolish author will argue against big advances) were it not for the fact that this new giantism has a sinister side-effect. Small booksellers are going out of business, destroyed by the cost-cutting of supermarkets. Small publishers struggle to survive as they are unable to compete successfully for bookshop shelf-space.

And, almost unnoticed, smaller authors - or at least authors who lack the right publicity profile, who have not written that flashily promotable first book - are finding it increasingly difficult to be published at all. These are not mediocrities or no-hopers: on the books of most large literary agencies are several established authors, whose books have been praised and awarded prizes, but who now languish unpublished.

For 45 minutes, the author team tried to suggest that this high-pressure, all-or-nothing approach was not only bad for authors but culturally dangerous, too. Literary history shows that the greatest writers frequently take time to develop, that sometimes - more often than not, in fact - they lack the charisma of the celebrity. Conversely, the blockbuster of the moment is rarely the book that lasts.

It was not an easy argument to prosecute - no one likes a whinger, even if the whinge is on behalf of the less fortunate - but between us, we made a few worthwhile points before opening up the debate to the floor. Would any of the distinguished publishers or booksellers like to comment, point out flaws in our case?

Some hope. The assembled ranks sat in plump silence. One or two polite questions were asked. One publisher made a self-mocking joke about having had too heavy a lunch to be able to concentrate. The session drew to a frustratingly amiable close.

Later we were told that the session was deemed a success, that publishers and booksellers, guardians of our literary culture, were more concerned about these things than they appeared. After all, books are different.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas