Balancing the books

The “debate” around Hilary Mantel’s comments about how the media portrays Kate Middleton shows why publishing remains a notch above the fourth estate. Mantel’s talk, a subtle historical perspective on royalty that sought to make sense of how monarchy fascinates us, was ludicrously traduced by the Daily Mail (and others) and turned into something more akin to, well, what a Daily Mail columnist might write, rather than the work of a novelist who has twice won the Man Booker Prize.

This was a shame for Mantel, for the national discussion, and for those who think journalism can be better than this. Mantel has wisely chosen to remain above the reaction, but can take heart from the huge support she gained from those who actually read (or heard) the speech, and, of course, an increase in sales.

But there is a backdrop to this that should not go unexplored. The book business faces a hollowing out of its culture, of which Mantel has been a fine ambassador. She is precisely the kind of writer we need, someone skilled at her craft, able to convey precise details and profound ideas in dense yet readable prose, and someone for whom success was not immediate, but a result of years of investment by her publishers, booksellers and the author herself.

Mantel is also the kind of writer the industry might struggle to support in the future. Ever since before the Net Book Agreement fell, publishing has worried over the depth and diversity of its lists, with the advent of BookTrack (now BookScan) in the late ’90s bringing in a commercial edge to discussions on new acquisitions—welcomed by some, decried by others.

A decade on, the big books sell more (much more in fact), and the difficult titles continue to sell enough to justify time and money. Publishing is generally more profitable than it was and bookshops, though in decline, remain a force.

It may not always be so. The three pillars that support the sector—price, a diverse marketplace and copyright—are all under threat, while the shift to digital has up to now favoured quickly produced commercial fiction over slow-burners, when it is the latter that will underpin the sector in the long term.

Newspapers are driven by different agendas than book publishers, and the internet has meant they have become more short-termist. The book business needs to maintain a better balance—jam today, vintage wine tomorrow.