The Felixstowe Book Festival took place last weekend. It was the second year of the event, which is already growing in popularity and attracting both speakers and audience. The organisers, notably Meg Reid, are to be congratulated and hopefully they will continue enabling both the town and the event to prosper.
It raised some interesting questions for me, some which moved outside of the publishing industry. Writers are often isolated folk, hunched over screens in darkened rooms. In most cases they are independent entrepreneurs who dedicate much of their lives in pursuit of a dream. They want to write, indeed most will tell you they have to write.
The moving hand having writ must move on. For too many that’s where the real problems start. They need help if their creation is to be read by others. For nearly two centuries manuscripts have been submitted to publishers, who have selected a few scribbles from a growing pile of submissions. It was not always the case. Writers once employed publicists to promote their books, paying them a small commission. That quickly changed as publishers became rich they were able to pick more than one cherry from the submissive trees.
Of recent years publishers have learned that real profit comes from just a small number of titles. The trick is to select which ones. That’s become much easier as the costs of production to an ever-widening market have been steadily reduced.
Today publishers could take a chance, and publish more titles. There is less risk. In some respects that’s true. The independent publisher could once survive by publishing a small hardback edition aimed at public libraries, in the hope that a paperback publisher could take it on if sales showed it was popular. Libraries have largely stopped buying such books.
Twenty years ago this country published perhaps 100,000 titles a year, that’s now risen to 160,000. Demand is still there, and may even be growing. Not all of these titles are published by the established industry, there’s a growing army of small publishers, often authors just publishing their own work.
The conventional response is that self-published books are invariably rubbish, poorly written, without any editorial control, and badly produced. That may be true, but as any young damsel will tell you, you may have to kiss a lot of frogs before a Prince appears, but that will not stop her looking.
In many cases that is a lie spread about by publishers scared that the need for their services is being eroded. The author is concerned to produce a good book, and can now find support from independent editors and proofreaders, skilled folk who were dismissed by the trade and forced to work on short-term contracts.
Today we have the technology. The author has much more freedom. A simple computer will allow word-processing, from that ePub software can create an ebook to serve the growing band of ebook publishers. If it looks worthwhile the ebook can be turned into a printed book, best printed by demand (POD). Such books are only printed once they have been sold. Offered for sale or promoted through internet book shops, the authors blogs and web sites and through social media, an audience can be reached. On Amazon ebook downloads now exceed book sales.
Our bookshops have been reduced in number, and those that are left tend to stock titles produced by the agglomerated collection of imprints which are now owned by about seven large corporations.
Such companies are obsessed by money. Perhaps, somewhere, our literary heritage is being considered but mass appeal is much more likely to be attractive. Besides books are now cheap to produce. A marketing campaign is followed by careful monitoring of sales. If expected sales figures are not quickly achieved that title can disappear from the shelves. Large distributors tend to have book pulping machines to deal with such economic failures. Not that they will always disappear from the system. POD can often step in to help support the backlist, titles for which there is no longer any real demand.
The structure mirrors that of much of the retail trade. Supermarkets have replaced independent grocers and specialist food suppliers, be they butchers, bakers or delicatessens. Haberdashers and the wide variety of general suppliers are now all pushed into retail sheds, and private transport is needed to buy ten screws when you only wanted one.
One of the economic problems that England must overcome is our dependency upon retail trade. Making us all buy more ‘things’ than we need makes for a weak economic system, one that is over-reliant upon the idea that ‘growth’ is really important. Strangely enough growth is at the heart of our weak financial systems. We only have one planet, growth assumes that we already have at least two. If the whole world consumes at the same rate as the USA we’d soon run out of, well, everything.
We are now told that we must save money. We have all behaved badly and must now pay the price. Another viewpoint could be that the bankers are really to blame. They stood on our street corners handing out loans and mortgages like sweeties. Debt was OK. You can pay it back later. So we could, for a while.
Remember that none of this money has ever really existed. Loans are just a line of figures on the banks accounts. The loan is just a number, plucked out the air by the bank. All that really exists is the debt incurred for lending this fictitious sum and the consequences of failing to repay the interest when due. That demand falls upon the hapless debtor, and we have seen houses repossessed, businesses fail, just because a bank recalls a loan. A loan on a sum that never existed in the first place.
The Gold Standard, which ensured the banks must be able to cope with demands for cash, was abolished in 1971 by pressure applied by the USA, and the $USdollar became the new standard. You may recall that in 1968 Prime Minister Harold Wilson bought as much gold as this country could afford, flying it in to airfields in Suffolk, and storing it in the Bank of England. He was condemned and soon removed from office.
Now we are told we are poor yet the British government has spent at least £850 billion so far bailing out the banks – where did that money come from? In addition quantitative easing (QE) has watered down our currency by introducing £375 billion in ‘new’ money. The pound in your pocket is not worth what it once was.
Incidentally the QE cash was given to the banks who were to lend it to industry. So far from every £1 given to the banks they have lent just 8 pence to industry. Most of that money has been given to speculators. The Stock Market has improved but that market does not make anything, except profit for the small number of investors who can afford to gamble. They are just leeches stuck on the backsides of British workers, sucking out energy, destroying creativity.
Now over half of British industry is foreign-owned. Inward investment is heralded as a lifeline. Such investment sees profit leave our country and our workers dependent upon the whims of international conglomerates. It creates a nation of wage slaves.
It’s not enough to moan and groan. We need alternatives.
A discussion about those will follow tomorrow. You’ve read enough for today. Make yourself a cup of tea and have a lie down.