The Elephant in the Graveyard

When I attended the HarperCollins summer party this time last year I joked that if one listened hard it was possible to hear Rome burning in the distance. It didn’t feel like a funny joke then and it felt even less funny listening to Victoria Barnsley’s candid and rather witty speech at what was in effect her leaving party last week.

Much ink has been spilled over the last week about the new order coming in to publishing, about how it has been, variously a bad few days for women, bad for editors and bad for British publishing generally.

In some lights it is all of those things. However all of this comment is a sharp reminder of just how conservative and Eeyorish British publishing is: all change tends to be viewed gloomily.

The fact of the matter is that the generation of publishing leaders that is coming to an end which includes Victoria Barnsley and Gail Rebuck, (but should also include Helen Fraser and Tim Hely Hutchinson) might struggle to argue that they have left British publishing in better shape than they found it.

Theirs is the generation which called time on the net book agreement and ushered in the age of the celebrity memoir, books on permanent discount like cheap sofas and of course opened the door to (and spent years laughing up their sleeves at) the all conquering behemoth that is Amazon.

Let me be clear – I have a great deal of respect for all of those people: they rose to the top of their profession in a tough and competitive environment and are immensely able and passionate people. However, they understood and thrived in the traditional, bricks and mortar retail environment where booksellers were publishers’ customers and domination of the physical space was the be all and end all of sales.

When the paradigm shifted, which significantly predates the global recession - Amazon first turned a profit way back in 2002 – they comprehensively and continuously failed to understand the challenges of the new world. Why should they – they were schooled in the old and had already presided over one paradigm shift – the end of the net book agreement. Is anyone capable of presiding over two?

So, while there was endless tedious nonsense about DRM, piracy and price and countless millions wasted on websites (I’d love to see a breakdown of the amount of money publishers have spent on websites in the last fifteen years and the actual revenue they have generated). The world has redrawn itself around them.

Piracy is really just a boring job for publishers to do but the obsession with it has led to a complete misunderstanding of DRM which has wholly played in to Amazon’s hands and has suicidally helped them create their monopoly. The pricing issue has seen publishers slapped with huge fines, the debacle of the agency model and the widely held suspicion that publishers run a cartel and that books are a rip off. Disaster after disaster.

Above all we now have an industry entirely dominated in this country by the 900 pound gorilla that is Amazon and the prospect of Australia and New Zealand being stripped away from the UK as a traditional part of our territory: a move which will fatally and permanently shrink our significance as part of the global publishing family.


So, I am afraid that I can feel nothing but a huge sense of relief that the change has started. It is five years too late and I fear it has a good long way to go yet, but for now I am absolutely delighted to welcome in the new. Let’s have more of it.