The bestseller business? How publishers wish

<p>Earlier this week the jolly good fellows of the Royal Society of Literature were treated to a genuine slice of publishing industry invective. At a debate titled &quot;The Bestseller Business&quot;&mdash;how publishers wish it actually was&mdash;the agent Clare Alexander <a href="http://www.thebookseller.com/news/48674-bestsellers-tyranny-attacked.htm... publishers for being &quot;cynical&quot; and &quot;inert&quot;</a>. Her charge was that the obsession with celebrity and mis mems is distorting priorities and endangering the industry's long-term sustainability. &quot;We have the stupidest bestseller list in the world at the moment.&quot;</p>
<p>The only publisher on the panel, Faber's Stephen Page, made a half-defence of the need to engage with the mass market. But, jokingly questioning why the head of Faber was being asked to talk about bestsellers, he gloomily admitted to grave concerns about the industry's &quot;fixation&quot; on mimicking past successes. Both Alexander and Page stressed that they were not criticising the mass market per se. But when Tracey Chevalier read through a list of the current non-fiction bestsellers, the astonished laughs from the audience suggested a level of shared disdain for the country's reading tastes.</p>
<p>In response I tried to point out the dangers of certain comparisons. It is easy to glance at the <i>New York Times</i> bestseller lists and presume Britons are irreparably lowbrow. But the <i>NYT</i> is highly secretive about where it draws its data from, and does not take into account sales through the giant Wal-Mart. It <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/21/opinion/21pubed.html?_r=1&amp;oref=slo... admits that its charts are editorially manipulated</a> to create &quot;reader interest&quot; (or perhaps to fit metropolitan prejudices)&mdash;for instance titles are removed if they have been bestsellers for too long! Alexander also compared the UK charts to those from 20 years ago, which featured Richard Ellman's bestselling biography of Oscar Wilde. But this is also shaky ground, because those charts were compiled from a much smaller panel of bookshops. Let's not romanticise the past&mdash;on this week 30 years ago, <i>The Guinness Book of Records </i>was number one, alongside Tolkien, James Herriot, Joyce Grenfell, Dick Francis, and tie-ins to Starsky &amp; Hutch and Star Wars.</p>
<p>Today Nielsen BookScan records actual till sales covering around 90% of the UK market; that's as near as dammit to a reflection of what people actually buy, rather than what they <i>should</i> buy. And of course the more mass market titles dominate&mdash;that's because the supermarkets can sell huge numbers of instantly recognisable &quot;branded&quot; books, while our high street chains are ever more desperate to draw in casual browsers with the same set of titles. But these sales are largely to new types of people: the same person who picked up the Oscar Wilde tome in 1987 will hardly now be savouring Sharon Osbourne's second slice of memoir.</p>
<p>I'm not convinced that British readers are &quot;stupid&quot;. If that was the case, why would Alan Bennett's diaries and Richard Dawkins' polemic have been recent Christmas hits? How could the UK's leading serious non-fiction publisher, Penguin Press, <a href="http://www.thebookseller.com/in-depth/feature/40747-publishers-get-serio... recorded a 26% sales rise in 2006</a>? And why would nimble non-fiction specialists, from Gibson Square to Profile, be flourishing? All that has happened is that publishing has evolved to serve a much wider spread of tastes, is no longer ashamed to be a commercial as well as a cultural enterprise. There's much effort expended in making the big books even bigger still, so they shout louder than ever. That is great for the industry's visibility. But don't be distracted by the top 20 sellers: the bulk of publishers' lists are still made up of ambitious, challenging work.</p>
<p>However, there are dangers in this push for new readers&mdash;and in publishers' Hollywood-style push for less risky propositions. Sales and marketing spend is increasingly being absorbed by books that can lean on a bigger brand, usually a famous author or television series. But as the the many celebrity flops have proved, certainty is never possible, and over-reliance on the whims of individual megastar authors is lethal. True successes come when brilliant books stand on their own terms and generate word-of-mouth recommendations.</p>
<p>For publishing's survival it is crucial to invest in genuine writerly talent&mdash;what Stephen Page calls &quot;seed corn&quot; for the future. That means tirelessly working on ways to market, publicise and sell new, unfamiliar concepts and names, rather than piggybacking on mass media or hoping for literary prizes. Many established writers built their careers in books before going on to become major &quot;brands&quot;. Their successors need similar commitment&mdash;that takes sustained energy as well as a fair share of marketing spend.</p>