Why big names don't mean best-sellers
SOMETHING has gone topsy-turvy in the world of books.
Famous publishers are paying vast sums for so-called "big books" that wind up very quickly in the remainder shops. Meanwhile, the best-seller lists are topped by perfectly-formed, unprepossessing volumes from small independent firms that can hardly believe their good fortune. It is a reversal of the natural laws of publishing.
Consider the red faces at Penguin, which paid 600,000 for Revolution Day, by the BBC Iraq reporter Rageh Omaar. It has sold only 16,000 copies, recouping perhaps 5 per cent of the advance.
Or contemplate the blushes of HarperCollins, which forked out 600,000 for Jon Snow’s memoirs and 500,000 for the bitter complaints of the former BBC director-general, Greg Dyke. Snow’s book has sold about 9,000 and Dyke’s sales lag below 6,000 on the trusty Nielsen BookScan monitor. "The right man, the wrong book," is the internal excuse for the poor showing by Snow.
Now witness the grins at Profile Books, which has seen its turnover leap from 3 million to 5 million on the back of the phenomenal lift-off of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Profile, which employs just 15 people, paid not much more than 10,000 for the grammatical primer by Lynne Truss, a journalist. It became last year’s Christmas No 1, selling 824,085 copies in Britain.
Or think Jordan, aka Katie Price. The pneumatic model was paid in the low five figures for her memoirs by John Blake, a Fleet Street journalist-turned-publisher. The book has so far sold 270,000 copies, dwarfing the puny efforts of the high-brow media men Omaar, Snow and Dyke.
In the more fragile field of fiction, HarperCollins paid Ann-Marie MacDonald $1 million (523,000) for her epic novel The Way the Crow Flies. The book, published in June, has sold 2,188 copies in hardback and 9,881 in paperback worldwide. MacDonald may be very old indeed before her publishers recoup the extravagant advance.
By contrast, Canongate, the independent Edinburgh publisher led by the ebullient Jamie Byng, paid less than 50,000 to the Canadian writer Yann Martel for Life of Pi. It went on to win the Man Booker prize and sell a million copies. Canongate has kept itself in the buzz ever since. Its current hit is Ghosting by Jennie Erdal.
Also in Edinburgh - named in October as the first UNESCO World City of Literature - the tiny Polygon imprint, owned by the not-much-larger Birlinn, is responsible for the unstoppable rise of Alexander McCall Smith, author of The Scotsman’s daily novel, 44 Scotland Street.
The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, his first mystery, had an initial print run of 1,500. His recent In the Company of Cheerful Ladies clocked in at 101,000 copies, a Scottish record. Birlinn’s turnover is up from 1.3 million to 2.3 million.
McCall Smith, who has previously been published by much bigger firms, believes small groups do things better. "You can get a deal with a large house but feel lost because they have so many writers on their list," he says. "A publisher with whom one has good rapport is likely to have a sense of how you should develop as an author."
Truss, previously published unrewardingly by Penguin and Hodder Headline, agrees that smallness helped Eats, Shoots & Leaves. "Because Profile is such a small house, it responded very quickly when the book started to take off," she said. "You just wouldn’t get that from big publishers."
Andrew Franklin, once a big wheel at Penguin-owned Hamish Hamilton before he founded Profile, reckons big publishers are too derivative. He says: "Readers want what is original, well-written and fresh, but those books are overlooked by the conglomerates."
Jamie Byng adds: "I have had conversations with editors in big houses who weren’t allowed to buy books we later went on to do well with because they didn’t have the support of their sales and marketing people."
Agents bemoan the same weakness. "It has got increasingly difficult for editors to put their stamp on books," says Derek Johns of AP Watt, whose clients include Martel, Esther Freud and Linda Grant.
The conglomerates respond angrily to charges of editorial emasculation. "If that is an editor’s excuse, they are complete wimps who shouldn’t be in the job," says Tom Weldon, Penguin general managing director.
But, unable to ignore the minnows any more, some conglomerates are trying to copy them. Gail Rebuck, who chairs Random House, has challenged her staff to find books that have been modestly published and turn them into best-sellers. Three books first published by their authors have been snapped up. One, Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde, has sold 50,000 and reached 41 in the sales charts.
Opinion is divided on whether independents can continue their surge. The supreme example of their luck is Bloomsbury, which bought Harry Potter for 3,000 after 20 publishers turned it down. Bloomsbury’s director, Liz Calder, says: "A book will not sell unless people love it and recommend it."
Bloomsbury sat tight on its Potter profits until the next likely prospect came along - Susanna Clarke’s 800-page fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, unusually both an instant best-seller and a hot tip for the Whitbread Award.
Still, it is not all one-way traffic. Corporate Transworld bought The Da Vinci Code for less than 50,000; it went on to sell 15 million. And the year’s biggest hit has been a book bought for 3,000 by the editor Ursula Doyle at the German group Pan Macmillan. Alice Sebold’s tale of a 14-year-old girl who looks down from heaven as family and friends cope with her murder captured the public imagination. The Lovely Bones sold a million - and was then featured on Richard and Judy and sold hundreds of thousands more.
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