Beyond the Commonwealth

This week David Fickling Books and Penguin Random House UK revealed that the next title in Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust series, The Secret Commonwealth, will be released on 3rd October. The last book, La Belle Sauvage, sold 305,705 copies in its first year in hardback in the UK, and thereafter more than a million worldwide, so both publishers will believe there is something to build on.

There are two things worth highlighting about the deal that tell us a little about the market. First, the co-publication relationship with DFB and PRH is unusual—we do not know the relative shares each takes from the sales of the book (though my hunch is that PRH is in the driving seat), but nevertheless it speaks not only to Pullman’s loyalty to his long-time editor Fickling, but also to PRH’s willingness to countenance such an arrangement. I don’t wish to over-egg it (since book one was also co-published, it is hardly news), but rather like Bloomsbury’s more recent deal for Ben Myers—whose backlist was acquired from small press Bluemoose Books under a 10-year licence—it shows a degree of flexibility that belies the reputation of the larger publishers. (Agents might wish for similar latitude when it comes to audio rights, but that argument is for another day.)

Second, the book will be published by PRH in the US (by Knopf), and by the UK publisher(s) in the UK, Commonwealth and the English-language open market, simultaneously. Joined-up publication has become standard for the bigger authors (and their books) even where the publishers are different, but global publishing, as pursued by HarperCollins under its global publishing programme, PRH with the Obamas, Bonnier with Wilbur Smith, and perhaps most recently Simon & Schuster with John Irving, remains rare, only hesitantly pursued by some of the bigger publishers, and actively resisted by most agents. It is really only the digital presses, such as Bookouture and Joffe Books, that pursue it across all acquisitions.

The reasons why global publishing has not become more fashionable are manifold, but chief among them is that even the biggest publishers in the world have to get buy-in from their local offices if a book is to work regionally. Editors do not react well to diktat. Nevertheless, those who pursue the strategy remark on the strength of the business case, while in last week’s issue Karin Slaughter said HC’s global programme appealed to her as a way of better organising the competing calls on her time, as well as streamlining the publication process.

The fear, and reality, of Amazon’s global store will also impact discussions. One US publisher told me recently that it will no longer buy US rights to a fiction title already published in the UK because of Amazon’s unwillingness to police which edition US consumers can buy. Such territorial erosion is only likely to continue as the platforms spread wider and global distribution gets ever more efficient—and in the words of one big publisher, you can either swim with the tide or against it. At present, we are treading water.