The experiment

<p>I&rsquo;d like to suggest an experiment. Modern publishing theory has it that the key to success and profitability is essentially a question of analysing BookScan data correctly. The bad old days of editorial inspiration, hunches and flair were no more than code for drunkenness and sloth.<br />
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The trouble is that the modern way seems to have created a publishing environment of shocking homogeneity and dullness. It&rsquo;s too easy to blame the retailers for a lack of variety. Publishers need to look at themselves too. <br />
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So I think Random House or Hachette should create two new publishing divisions. Let&rsquo;s call them BookScan and Lunch. BookScan would of course be ruthlessly structured as a contemporary publishing house where all publishing decisions are the product of intensive market scrutiny and exhaustive consensus building - and where editors are promoted according to their ability to acquire New York Times bestsellers.<br />
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Lunch meanwhile would be something altogether different. It would be a publishing company which placed the editorial process at its heart; a company where editors would have a discretionary budget; how much depending on seniority of course &ndash; but a publishing business where editors really could, once a year perhaps, buy books over lunch.<br />
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To modern ears that sounds like heresy: a recipe for editors to clog up the program with unsellable literary gems and quirky pet projects and lose the company hundreds of thousands of pounds in the process &ndash; as well as thoroughly demoralise the sales force given the job of selling this drivel..<br />
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Well, that&rsquo;s the experiment. Consensus is still important and only a fool refuses to listen to the opinions of their colleagues: junior editors wouldn&rsquo;t be given the keys to the vaults, but editors would be able to take risks and back their own judgement in a way that has all but disappeared. <br />
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At the moment editors while they have budgetary responsibility &ndash; often in the form of turnover targets &ndash; have no budgetary power. Giving a few thousand to spend on one book a year if properly structured, will not break the bank or destroy the system. The positive effects could be considerable.<br />
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It is not just a question of morale. Nice though it is to think of happy editors there are more pragmatic objectives. Give the editors a bonus dependent on the success of their own books, that would give them a real reason to exercise their judgement with care and would sharpen their editorial wits. There&rsquo;s nothing like the thought of money to sharpen the mind.<br />
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Equally of course, if editors can share in the success of their book, they can expect to share in the failure too. Unsuccessful editors should be sacked. It is one of the key failings of the current system that if acquisitions are entirely the product of the group mind then who is to blame when they go wrong? Nursery schools are places where no-one is to blame.<br />
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The fact is that a huge number of the huge selling, breakout hits of the last decade have not been books that the whole committee liked. Publishing history is littered with books which have gone for huge sums in hotly contested auctions that have sunk without trace. Just as it is littered with 250,000 plus sellers hardly anyone saw coming.<br />
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No-one really knows what they are talking about; committees aim for horses but far too often end up with camels. Precedent was what led so many people to turn down JK Rowling.<br />
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Large areas of publishing are susceptible to analysis: up to a point. The genre, mass market end of lists does tend to work according to precedent. It is proposition led. This by the way is a very good reason why literary and serious non-fiction has suffered so much in recent years. <br />
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I&rsquo;m not seriously suggesting that Lunch would actually be more profitable that BookScan. I&rsquo;m suggesting is that there is a very good chance there really wouldn&rsquo;t be much difference.<br />
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And in the long run there are intangible benefits that could really start to pay off. Who do you think authors would rather do business with (and agents). Who would the most talented editors want to work for? And not just editors, I strongly suspect that very many of the best sales, marketing and publicity people would be drawn to the kind of buzzy, unpredictable and exciting atmosphere this kind of publishing company would have. <br />
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Of course, it is a laughable fantasy &ndash; ludicrous to suppose that everyone could make just as much money, but have a great deal more fun and satisfaction doing it.<br />
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