by Helen Miles
I dropped from the alien world of I.T. into publishing about ten years ago. It was rather like visiting a favourite old uncle who was friendly, familiar and blithely unaware of the world I had recently left. Publishing, I discovered very quickly, wanted no truck with new-fangled technology. Most book shops had no computer at all, and those that did exist had clearly been given out free from a museum that had an embarrassment of Amstrads recently donated.
I had a great deal to learn about the world of books – I still do. But I persist in the notion that technology will be the saviour, and not the nemesis of publishing. And in the last couple of years I have detected that I am not entirely alone.
Books are different. I grew up with a reverence for books, instilled in me by my father. He left 14,000 of them when he died, and most showered you with a confetti comprising small hand-written notes slipped into their pages. I am still congenitally unable to write a note in a book, or to turn down a corner. But I was quite unprepared for the bizarre practices that persist in the selling of a book. Apparently, I must set a price for our books (that must end with 99p, obviously) and then offer a whacking discount to the trade. They then order a couple of hundred copies, hide them at the back of the shop for six months, sell two and send the rest back to me. This is regarded as so commonplace that no-one bats an eyelid, and the returned books are pulped and form the hardcore of motorways. Tell this to an ordinary reader in a Waterstone’s Costa outlet, and they will be utterly amazed. I was too, and also entirely out of pocket.
Enter the wonderful world of Print on Demand. Customer orders book. Printer prints book. Printer sends book to customer. It does not return. Solidus has made a profit, and the author has made a profit. The price for this ecological, economic and reasonable approach to selling books is a pained air of sniffiness that I detect from fellow publishers (although they use it themselves for backlist, and jolly useful they find it too).
And now, to shake the book industry to its core, the e-book. The Japanese buy millions of them and read them on their mobile phones. Americans have also taken to the idea, and you can visit American e-book stores on the Internet and browse through thousands of titles you would like to read. But you can’t download them here in the UK – licensing, copyright... fear. There are a few outlets in the UK who offer e-books. One site offers 18,000 titles – alphabetically! No, you cannot search for a title or an author. If you did, you would be disappointed, because most well-known authors’ books are simply not available yet as e-books. My e-book Reader meanwhile has become indispensible. All submissions that I receive come as e-mail attachments which I can copy to my Reader, and they are always there, on the train or in bed or the dentist’s waiting room. But I should love to be able to read for pleasure like this too – to carry my reading list with me everywhere. I am making sure that Solidus books are available in all formats, but of course, I have already read them all.
An e-mail full of alarm came from an author recently: she had discovered that her book was available at Google Books for people to browse through. They could read pages at a time, she said, and was there anything we could do? Yes, was my reply, be very grateful. After all, you can walk into any bookshop, take a book off the shelf, hide yourself away in a corner and read the whole thing if you want to. But it’s likely that if you are enjoying it so much, you will probably wander over to the cash till by page 34. Or you may make a mental note to buy it for a friend’s birthday. I can see these things as they happen, on little charts that show me which books people are flicking through, and which ones they go on to buy.
So do I embrace all this and open-handedly give out all the creativity that authors have entrusted to me as their publisher? Well, yes and no. Authors are clearly the life and soul of the book industry. No-one is more important than the author, unless you want to make a living selling blank notebooks. And yet being an author can be soul-destroying – their work is rejected frequently as a routine, and when it is accepted, the book may simply sink without trace under the morass of more popular ‘celebrity’ tomes. A few hundred copies sold is quite good going, and the profit to the author in the traditional world of publishing may be a few pence per copy. But they share a common goal, which is to be read. I see my job as being to bring their work to as many readers as possible, but clearly those readers should pay the author for their work and their creativity. The meanness of the reading public can be breath-taking. I have several times been asked by reading groups to provide them with ten copies of a book for free. As though the honour they are doing us by selecting the book that month is glory enough.
Authors are in some ways the key to change. They have a chance now to be known by their readers; to talk to them on sites like ‘Meet the Author’, to run blogs of their own, to interact with their readers. People admire an author, but they know nothing of the process of publishing. Why should they? ‘Who’s it by?’ readers ask, not ‘who published it?’ I hope the new technologies will bring authors closer to their readers.
Photo top: Jon Nicholls