Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Apoca-lit Now
First came the credit crunch. Now a crash is imminent in the world of words, with bookshops closing and authors in penury. Will the technological revolution destroy literature, or save it? Sameer Rahim reports

By Sameer Rahim
Published: The Telegraph,  27 Mar 2010

 This weekend, a sad scene is playing itself out on a busy west London high street. The Kilburn Bookshop, which has served readers for 30 years, is closing its doors for the last time. Many factors are involved – the recession and rent increases among them – but the bookshop’s manager, Simon-Peter Trimarco, believes there are deeper reasons for the closure. One problem is that browsers now rarely put their hand in their pocket. “Only one in 10 customers will end up buying a book.” They find what they want and then go to Tesco or Amazon where there are heavy discounts. (There is even an iPhone app that lets you scan a book’s bar code and find the cheapest price.) The Kilburn Bookshop is friendly and has something of a literary pedigree: “Zadie Smith came in as a little girl,” Trimarco says. If this shop can’t survive, then which can? Very few, it seems. Last year, one in 10 independent bookshops closed, at a rate of three a week. “I’m despairing,” Trimarco says.

The death of independent bookshops is just one symptom of a much wider crisis in publishing. Discounted books, online bookselling and the advent of ebooks are destroying old patterns of reading and book buying. We are living through a revolution as enormous as the one created by Gutenberg’s printing press – and authors and publishers are terrified they will become as outdated as the monks who copied out manuscripts. How this happened is down to ambitious editors, greedy agents, demanding writers and big businesses with an eye for easy profit. Combine that with devilishly fast technological innovation and you have a story as astonishing as the credit crunch – and potentially as destructive.

Forty years ago, such a rise and fall seemed unimaginable. Jeremy Lewis, currently at The Oldie, spent 25 years in publishing and is a successful biographer in his own right. He remembers a more restrictive world in the Sixties. “To be an author then, either you had private means, were an academic or were starving in a garret,” he says. Authors would be paid an advance when the book was taken on, which the publisher then recouped through sales. Royalties would only be paid once the publisher had got its money back. In those days, if a book were predicted to earn £1,000 a publisher would pay £400 up front – a modest sum, to say the least. Though they were accused of being “ruthless” and “penny-pinching”, veteran publishers such as André Deutsch and Fredric Warburg spent within their means. The title of Warburg’s first volume of memoirs perhaps sums it up: An Occupation for Gentlemen.

Something changed in the late Seventies. The rise of the agent played a role, as did the market forces that began to sweep through the country. In his biography of V?S Naipaul, Patrick French writes how Picador managed to tempt the writer away from Deutsch with the promise of larger financial rewards. (Naipaul was, looking back, shockingly poorly paid for someone who had won the Booker Prize and had been a successful author for a quarter of a century.) Wealthy media magnates, such as Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch, became involved in publishing and hired people to make their companies bigger and more profitable. The trend continued during the Eighties and Nineties. Neil Belton, an editor at Faber & Faber, describes it as a time of “astounding, swaggering hubris” when “you were expected to make a mark with a big deal. And you didn’t get respect until you had paid out £60,000 for a book.” For some, £60,000 was nothing: famously, Martin Amis received £500,000 for his novel The Information (1995), a staggering sum that became symbolic of the author-advance bubble.

By the Nineties there were worrying signs that things were out of control. Jeremy Lewis cheerfully admits that the advance he received for his Cyril Connolly biography (£50,000) was five times what he himself would have paid for it as an editor. “Now the atmosphere is much more sober, depressed and realistic,” Belton says. Serious non-fiction is lucky to sell 3,000 to 4,000 copies. An advance of £20,000 is now considered generous, though that is not enough for authors whose work may take years. Writers are now paying for the excesses of the past.

Speak to most independent retailers, publishers, agents or authors and one factor is blamed for this radical change: the abolition of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) in 1995. Brought into force in 1900, the NBA was an arrangement between publishers and booksellers that ensured books could not be offered at discounted prices. In 1962, some booksellers challenged it on the basis that it was anti-competitive. The courts rejected them on that occasion, accepting the argument that books were not just another product, like baked beans: they needed special protection. Controlling prices enabled independent bookshops to thrive in the face of larger competition; and it meant that publishers were able to produce books that might not have made instant profit but did well in the long term – their serious titles making a bid for the canon. For example, when Faber took on Kazuo Ishiguro’s quiet, contemplative first novel, A Pale View of Hills, in the early Eighties they cannot have imagined he would become a bestselling novelist. The NBA made such deals – and by extension, such careers – more likely.
Full story at The Telegraph.

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