The unbearable smugness of the book business


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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.

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