The low road to pulped fiction: Chris Mullin explains why the rise of junk publishing left him flogging his own book

Chris Mullin
Saturday 01 October 1994 23:02

THE DECISION last week by Hodder Headline to withdraw from the Net Book Agreement is the latest step in the remorseless corporate takeover of British publishing. It is certain to provoke a book price war which, like other price wars, will end with the triumph of the gigantic over the merely huge (the small will not get a look in). This may not be good news for the reading public but it certainly is for junk publishers.

Junk publishing, of which Naomi Campbell's novel is the most spectacular recent example, is a simple business. The quality of the work is irrelevant; all that matters is the name on the cover. For the right names, huge advances are paid, and then huge marketing budgets are set aside to promote the book, irrespective of merit.

One result is that publishers have little time or money left for authors whose appeal is anything other than mainstream.

The rise of the corporate publisher has been paralleled by another, less visible, development - the rise of the corporate distributor. Of these, by far the biggest is W H Smith, which controls a substantial part of both the wholesale and retail book trade. W H Smith is run along essentially Stalinist lines. The managers of most of its more than 400 bookshops have little discretion as to what they can purchase, but must instead defer to its offices in Swindon.

It is to Swindon that publishers' reps must make a monthly pilgrimage in the hope that they can obtain the WHS imprimatur for their wares. On the basis usually of no more than a glance at the cover, WHS buyers allocate each title a grade. The factors that count are: how big is the marketing budget? Will there be a television series? Is the author famous? A low grade means that a title is effectively doomed to a small sale before it is even published. Worse, once awarded, a grade cannot easily be revised. Even if a book allocated a low grade sells out, it will not be re-ordered. To perform this service, WHS demands discounts from publishers of up to 55 per cent. Only a near-monopoly could get away with this.

I have personal experience of this. The fate of my novel, A Very British Coup, illustrates the effect of junk publishing on non-junk authors. The book has the rare distinction of having been published by three of the main British paperback houses. On each occasion it has been printed in modest quantities and sold out. On each occasion the publisher has expressed mild surprise, usually followed by a flat refusal to reprint.

It was first published in paperback by Coronet in 1983 with a print run of 12,000. W H Smith allocated it a low grade and sold about 750. That seemed to be that.

I decided to see if I could do better. Through the newspaper Tribune, where I worked at the time, I began buying the book from the publisher in boxes of 100 at a 50 per cent discount. I then offered copies to small bookshops with which Tribune had dealings. It sold like hot cakes. Within a few months the two branches of Colletts in the Charing Cross Road in London had sold move than 200 copies apiece. Even the little Paperback Centre in Brixton sold 120. 'The publishers must be pleased that it is such a success,' remarked one bookshop manager. 'They don't even know,' I replied.

A Very British Coup soon became number one in the London best-seller list. The Coronet sales department rang to draw my attention to this, as though it were their own work. When I explained that it was not, the sales manager's attitude cooled. 'You've only tried left-wing bookshops,' he declared.

I promptly offered copies to Waterstone's and Books Etc in Charing Cross Road and, sure enough, it sold well again. I wrote to W H Smith asking why it could only sell 750 copies between its 400 shops when I had managed 1,400 copies between about 10. I received courteous replies, but no satisfactory answer.

By the time the TV version of A Very British Coup came around in 1988, I had transferred the paperback rights to Corgi, where an enthusiastic editor promised better things. Alas, his enthusiasm was not shared by his sales department which, once again, decided to spend nothing on promotion.

The print run, considering the enormous publicity generated by the television series (starring Ray McAnally), was modest and sold out within weeks. I was unable to persuade Corgi to reprint, even though the series was screened three times that year.

WHS performed true to form. A slightly higher grade was allocated. A slightly higher number were sold. The WHS branch in Sunderland, where I was by this time the local MP, was allocated only six copies. They arrived two weeks late and were displayed at ankle height. When they had sold, the book was not re-ordered.

The third paperback version of A Very British Coup appeared in 1991, published this time by Arrow. The print run was modest, timed to coincide with the hardback edition of my third novel, The Year of the Fire Monkey. It sold out within a few weeks. The publishers at first refused to reprint, but after an appeal (to the managing director) a further modest print run was organised. It sold steadily, but slowly.

At the beginning of this year I received a call from Tribune, where my books are sold by mail order. Was I aware that A Very British Coup was out of print? No I was not. On the contrary, according to my calculations there ought to be another 3,000 copies in the publisher's warehouse.

The missing copies had been pulped. These days distributors do not bother to return unsold books to the publisher; they just destroy them. One editor told me more than a quarter of his company's output was disposed of in this way. What greater tribute can there be to the rise of junk publishing?

As for A Very British Coup, enquiry revealed that there were still 300 copies in the warehouse. I bought them at once.

Chris Mullin is MP for Sunderland South and the author of four books.

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