New model army
05.10.12 | Jonny Geller
My favourite moment in cinema history is when Lawrence of Arabia convinces his friend Sherif Ali to do the impossible: attack the fortress harbour of Aqaba from the rear, through the punishing Nefud desert, with only 50 unreliable mercenaries. His thinking is that the huge guns face the sea to protect the Suez Canal and that they cannot be turned around.
They knew the objective and they knew the way to do it, but they didn’t believe in how they could do it. Until Peter O’Toole’s madness makes it happen.
OK, perhaps it’s not my favourite moment in all of cinema, but it is useful for what I’m trying to say here. We in publishing have, for too long, been facing out to sea with fixed guns. The target may not always be one fixed spot—bookshops, supermarkets, online, reviewers—but the infrastructure has remained secure. A big publisher sells a big book through big (and small) shops.
But authors have discovered new ways of attacking from the rear, publishers have realised their artillery is pointing in the wrong direction, and agents have not decided to be brave enough to join the desert attack.
Publishing is not necessarily an adversarial business, but creative friction is essential. The agents are expected to put the brakes on crazy schemes and to accelerate great ideas. Most of all, we agents must be flexible. I wrote an agent’s manifesto in a previous column for The Bookseller which garnered a huge response from authors. It was not what I said particularly but the fact I said it—authors need to be put back in their rightful place in the publishing firmament: at its heart.
So with that in mind, here is a guide to doing the impossible (or Tips from Aqaba):
» Publishers need to separate their “brand author” business and their “publishing author” business. Brands need a completely different level of care and management, and a vastly different skill-set from their publisher. Authors need individual expertise, passion and 100% belief. If you mix the two up, it becomes predominantly about the bottom line, and both lose out
» Retailers need to believe their service is worth providing; that what they give is part of the price of the book. Otherwise, develop your online business and use your floorspace as showrooms
» Agents need to stop whingeing. There is no point shouting at publishers if they cannot effect change in certain areas. Either do it yourself or take the pill
» Authors new to the business need to take the long view and decide early on if it is a career, a hobby or a passionate indulgence. Experienced authors should expect excellence and demand it of all aspects of the chain
» Readers need to risk paying for books again
There is no upside in being gloomy. As Frankfurt opens in a few days, we turn to hype, auctions and the lust for the new. Jason Cooper of Faber argued against Pyrrhic victories in auctions in The Bookseller last week. I, somewhat unsurprisingly, take a different view. He is asking for a less “shouty” Frankfurt where good books are sold for good prices. Perhaps he would prefer the Olympics to be for the best average competitors? It would be fairer, but boy would it be dull.
We all know the problems of auctions but there is no gun to the head of any publisher and they are not charities (yet), so they don’t need to be told to spend less. They need to be told to try for the impossible.