London Wall Publishing

Shelf Life – news from around the book business - July

Here’s a little scenario for you.  Let’s imagine that the government or the state is the dominant seller of ebooks.  It offers a fabulous service and has approximately 90% of the market.  Under the terms of its agreements with publishers it has what is called a Most Favoured Nation (MFN) clause.  This stipulates that if a publisher does a deal with another retailer under better terms, it must offer those same terms to the government.  Furthermore, no other retailer is allowed to sell titles cheaper than the government does.  Sounds a little Orwellian, doesn’t it? 

Now replace the word ‘government’ with ‘Amazon’ and you have a summary of where the book industry finds itself today. 

After months of lobbying by the UK’s Booksellers Association, the EC has just announced a huge and complicated investigation into Amazon’s contracts with publishers, with particular focus being on these MFN clauses.  Publishers argue that MFN clauses stifle innovation as they prevent publishers experimenting with new business models.  The clauses restrict competition – ironically, the US free market mantra – and prevent rivals from entering the market.  Competition lawyer Vivienne Robinson, of Cambridge-based Competition Law Services, said: “MFN is clearly wrong, and the European Commission said as much in the Apple e-book case, so it is hard to fathom why Amazon insists on these clauses.”

The investigation could take up to the three years and if found guilty Amazon could face a fine of up to 10% of its group worldwide turnover – a figure of around £5.6bn, based on net group sales of around £89bn. 

Few can fail to be impressed with Amazon’s service and its bibliographic authority; yet it is amusing to wonder how US citizens, with their famous fear of anything that smacks of Communism, might react if it was the US state that had the same dominance as Amazon.  Reacting to the enquiry, Amazon said:  “Amazon is confident that our agreements with publishers are legal and in the best interests of readers.  We look forward to demonstrating this to the Commission as we co-operate fully during this process.”  There will be much comment on this in the months to come.

Another form of competition was also to the fore this month: that between men and women.  In widely publicised remarks, the novelist Kamila Shamsie called for 2018 to be a Year of Publishing Women, to redress the imbalance highlighted by painstaking research into the gender of prize winners, the gender of the protagonists of novels and the gender of the authors chosen in all those Novels of the Year lists (and the gender of the choosers too).  To re-dress a male bias she is calling for publishers to only publish women authors in 2018, which will be the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.  Indie house And Other Stories has already taken up the challenge, with Publisher Stefan Tobler commenting: “We’ve realised for a while that we’ve published more men than women.  This year we’ve done seven books by men and four by women... We have a wide range of people helping us with our choices, and our editors are women... and yet somehow we still publish more books by men than women.”

The plight of short stories was discussed this month, with Ra Page, founder of Comma Press in Manchester, noting that while the form “is probably as healthy as it’s been for a while”, it was still a fringe activity that the major houses will only invest in up to a point.  Page also observed: “There are some great awards out there that cater specifically for the short story, but until the big players, such as the Man Booker, open their doors to the short story, the short form is in danger of being forever ghettoised”.


Finally, as the summer festival circuit got under way, two authors offered some inspiring thoughts on the craft of writing.  Andrew Miller, author of Pure which won the £30,000 Costa Book of the Year in 2012 and who teachers creative writing at Arvon, urges would-be writers to take risks.  “The moment you try to play safe you are likely to produce work that is of no interest.  As a rule of thumb, be ambitious, be free, write the book you want – and don’t lose your nerve.”

William Boyd, who has a new novel, Sweet Caress, coming in August – and which will include photographs – offered this inspiring eulogy to the craft of fiction:  “How do you find out what makes people tick?  The answer is the novel.  That’s why it endures and thrives.  It’s the best art form for making sense of the human condition.  It deals with the messy, random business of our lives, this common adventure we’re on, the human predicament.  Fiction’s the best way of getting at the truth, however paradoxical that sounds.”

Latest entries:

London Wall Publishing’s Project Manager, Fiona Marsh, with US actor, Trey Gerrald, at the 18th annual Independent Publisher Book Awards held during BookExpo America in New York receiving the Gold Award for Romance Fiction for The Echoes of Love by Hannah Fielding. 

Launched in 1996 and conducted each year to honor the year's best independently published books, the "IPPY" Awards recognize merit in a broad range of subjects and reward authors and publishers who "take chances and break new ground." Independent publishers, along with independent booksellers, have long held an important role in the world of books, offering an alternative to "the big five" conglomerated media publishers.