The one and (not) only

One of the more interesting things about the American Dirt row has been the number of commentators lining up to tell us how big publishing works. Chief among the barbs is that corporates can “guarantee” hits, pushing aside worthier titles—“a book is anointed each season or year as The One”, argued writer and translator David Bowles in the New York Times. The truth is more boring: there are many “ones” in any season, and although such books do enjoy a premium service from their publisher, this is not, of itself, a guarantee of success.

In fact (outside of the brands), most books don’t work. If success was certain, publishing would look like a very different kind of business. Any student of publishing will quickly find that the big hits are often unplanned, side bets that pick up a following and then momentum through booksellers—this week’s number one, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, is a good example. That’s not to say publishers don’t have high expectations for their books, just that they are used to them being dashed.

This week, as part of our marking of 30 years of the British Book Book Awards, we have unveiled the titles that have defined the trade over these past few decades (see p12)—at least, as seen through the eyes of past Nibbies judges. For trade veterans, the list will more likely be a trip down the alleyways of good fortune, rather than the passages of astute planning. Contrary to what you might expect, the list is not dominated by names that were already established, but by books such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Northern Lights, The Art Book, Longitude, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Curious Incident... and Brick Lane that did something remarkable in their moment, beginning a trend, launching a brand, or revitalising their publisher.

The list shows how precarious publishing is: at publisher level, Transworld is the hit-maker with three of the 30 titles, as befits its remarkable golden period in the Noughties. But it’s hardly dominant. For the rest it’s an even spread, with the magic bestowed by Harry, Bridget, Captain Corelli, Eleanor and Christian capricious. Though publishing is often accused of crushing homogeneity, in fact lightning rarely strikes the same publisher twice.

Agglomeration has had an impact, though. The publishers that make up Penguin Random House contribute 30% of the list, even though much of the publishing pre-dates the forming of that group; there are too few indies; and only one publisher operating outside London. You could argue that the British Book Awards have always been about the big publishers, but we are not alone: of the 25 winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (also running a retrospective this year), only six were published by small presses, and none from outside the capital.

There is a good reason for this. Publishing is a tough business, with success scarce—publishers prefer safety in numbers and the wisdom of their own crowd precisely because bestsellers aren’t simply doled out from on high, but raised up by the many. None of this is easy, or a given, and it is why, when we succeed, we celebrate.