The grand illusion

The best thing about the book business is its inconsistency. It is also the most troubling. Last week, the London Book Fair hummed vibrantly to the rhythm of publishers, agents and authors deal-making.This week we have moved on, fretting once again about author pay, the diversity of the workforce and—in these pages at least—the future of library supply.

One would think, walking the packed aisles of Olympia’s main hall, that publishing was booming—a hubbub of book folk doing what they do. The atmosphere was febrile, the mood rambunctious. The big publishing groups dominated the space, and yet all around them and in the galleries above them envious eyes looked on. Many within this wider firmament of smaller publishers, start-ups and service companies whisper darkly about how the business model is broken, yet the rights activity at LBF tells us otherwise.

But we cannot say that all is well either. Some of the discontent can be felt in the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society’s  (ALCS) important report into the “business of being an author” and Spread the Word’s survey into diversity. If the current system is failing to pay the talent and not attracting a workforce able to “engage meaningfully with the next generation of readers”—as the diversity report suggests—then for whom is the model set up to serve? 

Authors seem particularly ill-placed, with many simply too far down the food chain to see the value in the current model. As the ALCS’ head of rights and licensing Richard Combes says in a column, in any other sector “alarm bells” would sound. Yet publishing carries on, paying the brunt of its talent too little and too infrequently. It has been quick to lower advances and slower to raise royalty levels, arguing that the shift to digital has not yet settled enough to rethink this. But that clock has long since struck 13. Agents may believe it is their job to protect authorship, but it is not. As Philip Gwyn Jones argued at LBF in a speech entitled “The civil war for books: where is the money going?”, it is publishers who invest in writing, and they cannot afford to cede this ground. As he warned: “The next time that writer comes up with a bold, unorthodox, unprecedented notion for a book, what happens? . . . They bin it without telling anyone.” Or look for another way—a different model.

Publishers cannot be expected to solve all these problems, and behind the scenes there is always more going on than is ever noted in any newspaper’s coverage of these issues. That said, publishing is an important business: one only needs to read Caitlin Moran’s piece on libraries, published in the Times last weekend, to see why the model needs to work.