London Wall Publishing

Shelf Life – news from around the book business – March

What a month!  The idea that Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird should have lain undiscovered for so long is enough to make agents get on the phone to any clients of status they might have and ask: “Just wondered, um, could you have a root around, just to check there isn’t a manuscript somewhere….”.

For booksellers it has been the best of news – they know that they have a summer bestseller on their hands already when Go Set a Watchman is published in July.  The good news has continued too – the industry is going into spring with a strong sense of optimism.  Waterstones has significantly cut is losses and sales of hardbacks have improved, something that should gladden the hearts of booklovers everywhere.

Although Waterstones’ MD James Daunt believes the overall book market is still declining, its share feels more secure than it has for some time.  “Waterstones is growing which means someone isn’t,” he said. “Supermarkets are doing really badly and I think being more impacted by digital books than specialist booksellers.  We’ve sorted the business out to a greater degree and we’re on an upward trajectory.”

Digital remains a priority for many publishers, naturally, none more so than HarperCollins perhaps, which has shown itself more ready than others to embrace the new.  Chief Executive Charlie Redmayne – and yes, he is connected to that other Redmayne: the Oscar-winning actor, Eddie, is his stepbrother – has said he wants to make digital “more integrated across the business.  I want ‘content’ people to be able to tell stories across all platforms…One of the things publishers have found difficult is that it is very difficult to create profitable businesses on these new platforms.  It is very clear to me that if publishers don’t learn how to profitably tell stories across all these platforms then others will, and then we will be disintermediated.”

Content, and the many forms it can now take in the digital world – and who is going to represent those many forms – is a concern of agents like Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown.  He believes agencies need to take a broader, 360-degree approach now, representing all of a writer’s outlets – in other words, becoming effectively a one-stop shop for the talent.  “We need to be part of the deal,” he says, “not just negotiating it.  We need to be in partnership with the talent we believe in and create opportunities in every media for them.”

There has been some spring-like warmth shown towards Amazon too –not always the case, especially during last year when the Hachette group was involved in its very public stand-off with the Seattle giant.  Will Atkinson, newly-arrived MD of independent publisher Atlantic, said: “My feeling is [Amazon] realises it’s come to the natural end of spending so much senior management resource just crunching out suppliers.  It’s not going to get much more [from publishers] so there will be a concentration on selling the books.” 

Andrew Johnston of countryside specialist Quiller Press said: “Lots of people say ‘Isn’t Amazon terrible?’  But actually, it isn’t – for lots of independent publishers Amazon is vital because it is so hard to get space in bookshops.”

It is always good to welcome new imprints.  In keeping with the spring theme, Bluebird, has fluttered into the PanMacmillan stable, offering ‘books for life’.  It’s a non-fiction imprint, operating in the inspirational, mind body spirit area.  Publisher Carole Tonkinson, an industry veteran, had some interesting comments on the market, and on books’ role in busy 21st century lives.  “We’re living more stressful lives than ever.  Digital is on all the time, people work all the time.  We check our work e-mail on Saturday night.  I think there is a sense of: ‘where is the off switch?’…There was a moment a few years ago where we were worried books would get replaced.  But people feel reassured by an expert and by [physical] books.  They want a real authority.  If this is going to be how they raise their kid or how they change their health or their approach to work, they don’t want a 12-step Huffington Post article.”

Finally, there was a rousing talk given to US booksellers by Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran.  “Bookstores are the real manifestations of what a democratic space is,” she told them, “because on bookshelves you don’t differentiate what you put on by race, gender, religion, nationality or ethnicity.”  She went on to discuss the value of books for civilisation, for democracy, for perpetuating human values and for creating empathy and connections between people of widely different times and places.

Amen to that.

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.