November’s Byte The Book pitted two experienced publishing figures opposite each other – Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Richard Charkin and best-selling self-published novelist Polly Courtney.
The discussion began with a summary from each speaker on the ways in which the industry has changed in recent years. Polly commented on the fragmentation of readerships, and how this means that the old publishing model – printing a small selection of books and aiming to sell them in large quantities – no longer works. Stung by the digital revolution, publishers have become more risk-averse, while editors are under more pressure to go for surefire hits and as a result less able than they once were to take a punt on an unknown writer. Richard, however, questioned whether publishers really were more risk-averse than they used to be, suggesting that there’d simply been a shift in the kind of risk being taken and that in his eyes the industry seemed to be ‘pumping books out like there’s no tomorrow.’
The discussion then moved on to the hot topic of book pricing. Polly is accustomed to using her sales data to adapt the price of her eBooks according to demand, and pointed out that in the future the most successful authors will be those embracing this technique (traditional publishers, she added, aren’t really doing so). Richard saw the advantages in this approach, but was worried that prices-in-flux are in danger of devaluing the industry – people grumble about spending £1.79 on a novel, but they’ll pay a mechanic £100 an hour to fix their car, and there’s a worrying imbalance there.
Mention of a devalued industry led to discussion of what Polly referred to as the ‘swamp’ of books on the market. Self-published books currently outnumber traditionally-published titles three-to-one, which led Polly to suggest that while everyone has a book inside them, some might be better off keeping theirs to themselves. She had her tongue in her cheek of course, but the point was a timely one. What are the quality filters now, in this saturated marketplace? How do audiences know what’s worth reading and what isn’t? Do newspaper reviews, for example, still sell books? Richard confirmed that even a positive review in the New York Sunday Times – the gold standard for any would-be bestseller – has been shown to only generate, on average, around two hundred sales. The only thing that really works, he concluded, is word of mouth, and that’s truer now than ever.
The Club at the Ivy is filled to the rafters again!
A lively Q&A session followed, throwing up an interesting question from Michael Bhaskar of Profile Books on the subject of what makes a good publisher. Richard was pragmatic, firmly stating that the answer was ‘staying in business’ and ‘doing sums’. Polly spoke of the importance of understanding an author’s vision, in light of her famous departure from Harper Collins over what she considered to be misrepresentative book covers. ‘Do we really understand what the market wants?’, mused Richard, ‘…No’. But perhaps things have always been this way, and it’s the slim but ever-present chance of success that makes this industry so exciting.
What does the future hold for the publishing industry? Polly and Richard gave us loads to think about.