In The Observer, Victoria Glendinning laments the lack of appetite among publishers for serious biography nowadays. In particular, she points out that publishers no longer pay the kind of advances on royalties that they used to. Indeed, and a good thing too. The level of advances had got ridiculous, with publishers seemingly only too willing to throw good money after bad in their desire to get one over on their competitors. In the end the house of cards had to come crashing down, and it certainly did.
Take the David Blunkett diaries, for instance. OK, not strictly biography, but the book was symptomatic of the malaise that had afflicted the industry. Bloomsbury had decided it wanted to get into the political biography market so it bid a ridiculous amount of money for a book which was never going to be a huge seller. The advance was somewhere in the region of £250,000 and that didn't include newspaper serialisation rights. Blunkett trousered close to £400,000 in all for a book which sold around 5,000 copies. Work out the finances on that for yourself.
Victoria Glendinning makes the point that for professional biographers it is difficult to eke out a living nowadays. She got an advance of £10,000 for her latest book, a biography of David Astor. In 1992 she go £50,000 for a similar book on Cyril Connolly.
In part this is also due to the amount of money being thrown at celebrity autobiographies by the big publishers. They do it because some of them can sell serious numbers. But for every celebrity autobiography which becomes a bestseller there are another dozen which flop and lose their publishers a huge amount of money - not just the advance, but the massive amount devoted to marketing.
All this means that the bigger publishers, like Macmillan, HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House and Simon & Schuster, have decided that the non-celebrity biography is one to steer clear of unless they can be more or less 100% confident that they can sell at least 10,000 copies in hardback.
But all this means that publishers like my company, Biteback, are now being offered books by authors and agents which even five years ago would have been way out of our range. But we are not changing our business approach to accommodate them. I'm simply not prepared to try to compete with big publishers on advances. Indeed, we don't pay any advances at all on the majority of books we take on. We can't and won't, because the business model for a publishing company like ours can't cope with advances beyond a few thousand pounds. And I mean a very few.
It's not that we are being mean spirited. It's just that sales levels can't justify it. We'd all love to get that elusive best seller, but in the real world we all live in we know that it's unlikely to happen. The world of bookselling is a very different beast to that which existed even eight years ago. Then, there were a multitude of bookshop chains - Waterstone's, Dillons, Ottakers, John Smith, Blackwells, W H Smith and one or to other regionals. Now there is one - Waterstone's. Even W H Smith has more or less reduced itself to the lowest common denominator.
The simple truth is that if Waterstone's won't stock a book as core stock, and put it in each of its stores, you have virtually no chance of a book selling beyond a couple of thousand copies. Of course, Amazon is crucial too, but the fact that it doesn't really have a serious online competitor gives it enormous buying power, leading to smaller publishes feeling as if they have been bulldozed.
In addition, small publishers are forced to accept deals which they know are fiercely uncompetitive. But if Waterstone's, W H Smith or Amazon demand 60% discount there's little scope for negotiation. And in the case of the first two, they often demand a "promotional" spend too just to even stock the book. For many publishers it has become the economics of the mad house.
So we are all asking ourselves, if e-Books might be the saviour of the publishing industry? In theory they could cut out the middle man (i.e. the bookshop) and be sold directly to the public. But, in theory, that is also the same for physical books, and most publishers don't do much direct bookselling. At Biteback we are about to dip our toes into the e-Book market. We've signed a deal with Amazon who appear to about to be become a monopoly supplier of e-Books. But no one really knows the price level at which to pitch e-Books. The consumer is canny enough to work out that if there aren't any print costs, the price should be lower, but some of the bigger UK publishers continue to stick their heads in the sand and try to charge the full retail price. But the economics of e-Books appear to stink. Say we charge £5 for a paperback whose bookshop price would be £10. Amazon will take 60% of the £5, leaving £2 left, of which £1 goes to the author. That doesn't leave an awful lot for the publisher, does it? If sales levels of e-Books is higher than that for physical books, then it might all work, but at the moment it is unclear if that will be the case, and how long it will take to get there.
All of this means that small to medium sized publishers are having to become far more innovative in the way they market and sell their books. This ought to be a huge opportunity for independent bookshops to step up to the breach and fill the gap vacated by the big chains who have all merged into one or gone out of business. But so far they show few signs of doing so.
All of this might sound a bit downbeat and depressing. But for me it's not a threat it's a real opportunity. We know there is a tremendous appetite for reading and good, quality literature in this country. All we have to do is figure out how best to exploit it.
This weekend, Biteback Publishing hit the front pages of both the Guardian and the Mail on Sunday. The publication of 5 Days to Power set the precedent for the weekend's political news agenda when the story broke in the Guardian on Saturday that a leaked document showed key Lib Dems thought the Liberal Democrat election plegde to scrap tuition fees within six years was untenable were a hung parliament to arise. "The Lib Dem document is disclosed in a new book on the coalition negotiations by Rob Wilson, Conservative MP for Reading East" the Guardian duly noted.
The story then took to the airwaves with Channel 4 News' Krishnan Guru-Murthy chiming: "Senior Liberal Democrats drew up plans to abandon the party's pledge to scrap student tuition fees two months before the General Election".
The exclusive serial revealed in the Mail on Sunday that David Cameron and Nick Clegg helped to prop up Gordon Brown in the days following the General Election and made him believe he still had a chance of clinging to power - full knowing that he didn't - for fear that Brown would up-sticks and leave without a Government in place.
David Laws' book 22 Days in May was credited by the MoS as "the first blow-by-blow insider's account of the high-octane and often acrimonious exchanges between the party leaders and rival negotiating teams."
Rob Wilson's book 5 Days to Power is available today for just £9.99 and David Laws's book 22 Days in May will be available from next Monday.
Both books will be available from Monday 22 November as e-books, priced £5.
When we were all kids, our parents told us to read more. If you are one of the five people born in the 80s who read enough for your parents never to tell you this, then you have missed out on what must be the most annoying parental trait of all time. More reading means less television to those of us born before the onslaught of gaming consoles, and meant fewer games of marbles/jacks/other things your grandparents recount fondly, to those people growing up without TV. We at Biteback are not going to lie, when we were 6, the fact that our parents had our best interests at heart escaped us. Now, having chosen a career in book publishing, we know they were right.
Before, you couldn’t pay us to read, but now, thanks to monthly instalments, we can tell you it’s awesome (we put this more down to maturing intellectually with age than the money coercing us into believing that we like books). The only other group of people who can claim that they get paid to read are newsreaders and, even though they don’t get to read books, they probably get paid more than us.
However, we have thankfully come out of the dark ages in which newsreaders were just actors who could be seen on Sesame Street the next morning. Today they can’t get to such a privileged position by just reading (although I’m sure there’s a sizeable amount of it still); they are informed journalists at the top of their game having reported expertly and professionally from all around the world. Maybe they do deserve to get paid more than us.
With all these first-hand fascinating experiences and unique, astounding stories, as well as informed insider knowledge on key events, some of these newsreaders decide that sometimes people don’t want to be read to, but quite like reading themselves (the dream of every parent). So they write a book.
What’s that? Peter Sissons is coming into the Biteback offices next week? That’s a crazy coincidence, I was just writing a blog about how much I’d love to read a newsreader’s autobiography.
Watch this space.
Wednesday 10 November 2011 was a cold, grey day in London but, seeing as that isn’t anything new, we’ll assume that day will be remembered in history for the sounds travelling through the brisk air: the marching of feet, the roaring of police helicopters and the tapping of keypads and keyboards frantically tweeting. London was witness to a protest march of thousands against the government’s plans to raise tuition fees for university education.
Not to say I told you so, but our very own Nostradamus, Francis Beckett, did kind of predict such policies by studying the patterns in governmental spending over the last few decades. Not only that, but he probably saw them first. So, neerrrrr.
In his book What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? Mystic Francis (doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, I know) discusses the way in which the baby boomer generation are reversing the welfare state from which they have benefited most.
“Most capital expenditure for education and health no longer comes from the present-day taxpayer, but from the next generation, because the baby boomers have been too stingy to pay for the welfare state. This trick is done by means of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), which are scams for getting the cost of public buildings like schools and hospitals off the present government’s books, and placing them on the books of governments ten or twenty years hence.”
His arguments stretch beyond education to all aspects of politics, arguing that the children of the 1960s have betrayed the generations that came before and after, and maybe reading Francis will help in predicting further angry protests. He is, after all, the new Professor Trelawney (some character in Harry Potter who can see the future... we ran out of psychics).
Get your copy of Francis Beckett’s What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? here for £12.99
NOTE: We at Biteback hope that the protest will be remembered for these brilliant placards...
1. I thought I was going to Alton Towers
2. This s**t wouldn’t happen at Hogwarts
3. I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policy
4. Kiss my arts
5. Is this the queue for Justin Bieber tickets?
Wonderful news! Not by popular demand but because we have mindblowing foresight - we are making all of our titles available as e-books.
I tell you this because we've had a few people approach us recently asking whether we'll be following the trend. Which of course we will. We've been discussing a strategy on e-books for a while and not at all belatedly have decided that the only strategy is all in. That makes it sound like my intimidating-come-stupid Texas Hold 'Em bluff - but we're deadly serious.
In fact, we're so serious that the first of our e-books - the eagerly anticipated 22 Days in May and 5 Days to Power - will be available on the day of their publication, 22 November.
We'll be sure to keep you updated on any newly published e-books. But for the time being, rest-assured, they're on the way...