Publishers get serious

Publishers get serious

<p>On Monday the literary, media, academic and political worlds will gather at London&#39;s Savoy Hotel to anoint the winner of the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Toasts will be raised to the shortlisted authors; bookmaker William Hill is lauding the highest quality shortlist in the history of the prize. The winner&mdash;favourite is Rajiv Chandrasekaran for <em>Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq&#39;s Green Zone </em>(Bloomsbury)&mdash;will be sure of a sales surge. British quality non-fiction will seem in rude health.</p><p>But step back to last November, when leading sociologist and Labour peer Anthony Giddens posted a blog on the Guardian&#39;s Comment is Free site, comparing the UK and US non-fiction bestseller lists. The Brits came off worse. &quot;The top-selling non-fiction book in the US at the moment,&quot; Giddens wrote, &quot;is a work by a leading Democratic presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, called The Audacity of Hope. It is a serious work of social and political policy. Most of the top 20 books are similarly works of a quite intellectual nature. Compare the British list, which is dominated by books on cooking and gardening and biographies of TV celebrities.&quot; His conclusion? &quot;The British don&#39;t much esteem intellectuals.&quot;</p><p>The comparison is slightly misleading. The New York Times bestseller lists that Giddens was glancing at don&#39;t include sales through Wal-Mart&mdash;imagine how a British chart would change without figures from Tesco and Asda. Yet Giddens&#39; underlying point holds: American publishers can confidently expect to reach wide audiences with significant new works in politics, economics, biography, science, philosophy or history; their British counterparts struggle to make any headway with the same books.</p><p>Editors in the UK regularly despair as ground-breaking biographies or slices of narrative history wither on the vine, despite adulatory reviews. Retail orders have shrunk, library subscriptions have all but vanished. The booms in popular science and history are long past, and no genre has sprung up in their place.</p><p>Yet, paradoxically, some serious non-fiction is selling more spectacularly than ever. Just glance at the numbers racked up by <em>The God Delusion</em>, <em>Freakonomics</em> or <em>Blink</em>. There&#39;s a backlash against reality television, and incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown talks of a &quot;new seriousness&quot; across the country. National newspapers, radio, websites and blogs offer reams of intelligent investigation and analysis. Amazon offers an instant route to readers, many independent bookshops thrive, and Waterstone&#39;s is making noises about committing to more heavyweight hardbacks.</p><p>Among the avid readers of Giddens&#39; blog was Random House UK chairman and chief executive Gail Rebuck, who circulated the link to staff. It came as she was planning a major investment in serious non-fiction, by way of a revitalisation of the Bodley Head imprint. Announcing the move in December, Rebuck referred to &quot;some debate about the quality of non-fiction publishing in Britain&quot;, but was adamant that there was &quot;no loss of appetite&quot; for it.<br /> <br /> Bodley Head revisited</p><p>The new Bodley Head will launch in April 2008 and aims to publish 25 titles a year, mainly in hardback. Will Sulkin, former publisher of Pimlico and Cape, has been busily acquiring authors along with his number two Dan Hind, poached from Duckworth. The backbone of the list will be formed by some big names moving across from other Random imprints: Stephen Greenblatt, Roger Penrose, Norman Davies, John Barrow and Misha Glenny. There&#39;s also a certain Simon Schama, lured from fellow RH imprint BBC Books for a major work on American history for October 2008.</p><p>But with retailers&#39; shelves crowded with misery memoirs, is this the right time for such an investment? Yes, Sulkin says, theorising that there&#39;s been a dumbed-down cultural blip which is now over. &quot;You have to believe people remain interested&mdash;we&#39;re not a dumber market than the US. Maybe publishers and booksellers just haven&#39;t reacted yet. You have to have a belief in quality.&quot;</p><p>But reading habits have fundamentally changed since the days of publishing for readers loyal to specific, well-defined genres. &quot;The market has fragmented,&quot; Sulkin says. &quot;There was once an easily identifiable history book buyer or science book buyer. But people&#39;s habits have changed and they&#39;re much more adventurous&mdash;they&#39;ll pick up a current affairs book one week and a biography the next. You can do a book on militant Islam or the Big Bang and they&#39;ll both sell well.&quot;</p><p>This is clearly liberating for an editor who has been handed a chequebook to build a new list. &quot;I&#39;m getting 15 proposals a week,&quot; he says, &quot;covering a huge variety, from neuro-economics to studies of radical Islam to a biography of Fran&ccedil;ois Mitterrand. So we&#39;re trying to build a quality list, diverse in terms of subject matter and approach&mdash;books of immaculate scholarship through to zeitgeisty journalistic work.&quot;<br /> <br /> Chasing Penguins</p><p>Random&#39;s model is clearly Penguin Press, the dominant specialist non-fiction powerhouse that grew its UK sales by 24.7% in 2006. Editorial director Simon Winder says its approach is simple: &quot;There has to be a cutting edge to every book. It can&#39;t be a retelling of great old stories&mdash;the reader has to believe they are getting something new. The days of an academic sitting down in his study and turning out a book on Charles I are gone.&quot; The implications for all publishers are obvious, he argues. &quot;It&#39;s no longer possible to put together a gentle programme of agreeable books. If the material isn&#39;t new, the market is unforgiving.&quot;</p><p>There are two distinct approaches: the journalistic style of serious non-fiction, ranging from &quot;ideas books&quot; to polemical tracts, and the long-term projects, usually borne from academia. This is where Bodley Head may struggle to make up ground: Penguin Press has scores of authors on contracts, delivering books commissioned more than a decade ago.</p><p>Yet the need to be nimble could also be an advantage for Bodley Head, forcing faster turnaround times. At Waterstone&#39;s, non-fiction category manager Fiona Kennedy praises publishers who &quot;capture issues people are concerned about, before interest is on the wane&quot;. She cites the current mini-boom in British history&mdash;led by Andrew Marr&#39;s TV tie-in, A History of Modern Britain, and Austerity Britain by David Kynaston&mdash;as well as books on environmental or global inequality.</p><p>&quot;People are asking for books to see what they can do to make a difference.&quot; As for the zeitgeisty, &quot;ideas&quot; phenomena such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb&#39;s <em>The Black Swan </em>and Chris Anderson&#39;s <em>The Long Tail</em>, she believes media is the driving force: &quot;These books can look great in reviews. Some promise a lot, but whether people find their way through the whole book is another matter.&quot;</p><p>A heavyweight author is crucial, particularly in the toughest genres such as biography. Life studies by Claire Tomalin and Jenny Uglow &quot;survive because of the people writing them&quot; rather than the subjects, Winder says. Kennedy agrees: &quot;The more serious the book, the more important the author is. For a &pound;30 history title the author needs to be someone with real authority and a track record.&quot; This partly explains investments, such as Bloomsbury&#39;s &pound;2m deal with William Dalrymple. Television profile helps, but is perceived as less important in a multi-channel world.</p><p>In this rockier, fast-shifting market the cover, format, pricing and marketing are all crucial. Penguin Press has made a name for itself by boldly re-inventing paperbacks for a broader, often younger, audience; witness the film-style campaigns for <em>Freakonomics</em> and <em>Blink</em>. Transworld has aimed squarely for the summer reading market with <em>The God Delusion </em>paperback.</p><p>At the Bodley Head, marketing, publicity and sales teams take part in acquisition meetings, and format and pricing form part of the earliest discussions. But Sulkin warns: &quot;Let&#39;s not disenfranchise heavy buyers, which some of the chains have done. There&#39;s no point in putting a flash cover on a Mitterrand biography and pretending it&#39;s a hip book.&quot;</p><p>Publishing talent is also spread widely: houses and imprints still committed to serious non-fiction projects include Picador, Bloomsbury, Faber, Hodder, HarperPress, Weidenfeld, and nimble independents such as Gibson Square, Atlantic and Granta. As the profitable cut-off point rises for the bigger houses&mdash;the bar is often set at at least 5,000 sales in hardback&mdash;more space opens for smaller players with lower costs.<br /> <br /> Deeply impressed</p><p>Criticism of publishers is often misplaced, says Samuel Johnson Prize 2007 judge Diana Athill, author of the acclaimed publishing memoir <em>Stet</em>. After wading through and scrutinising hundreds of submissions for the prize, she was deeply impressed: &quot;There&#39;s so much talk about deterioration of publishing standards, but [this year&#39;s shortlisted books] are as good as anything you could wish for. There are some really serious books&mdash;money hasn&#39;t been spared and the editors have been good.&quot;</p><p>Publishers emphasise that the market can still be found for brilliant non-fiction writing, even in seemingly obscure territories. Sulkin cites Gerry White&#39;s <em>London in the Nineteenth Century</em>, while Winder points to Christopher Clark&#39;s <em>Iron Kingdom</em>; both have shifted around 10,000 copies. &quot;You wouldn&#39;t say there&#39;s a general market for books on Prussia, but there&#39;s a market for the book on Prussia,&quot; Winder says. &quot;There&#39;s a real hunger for information.&quot;</p><p>As ever, reaching these curious readers and reeling them in is a mixture of luck and judgement. &quot;The market is choosy and skittish, but it will come out in huge numbers for the right book,&quot; Winder adds. &quot;Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict what that will be.&quot;</p>