London Wall Publishing

Shelf Life – news from around the book business – October 2019

It was the sandwich bag directive that did it for most people. Staff at Clays, printers of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments were instructed to carry their lunch in clear plastic bags, airport security-style, just in case one of them was secretly taking pages of text from the premises – you know, ham salad, extra mayo and page 14. Fabulous! Not since the final Harry Potter title has the industry seen such security measures.

As everyone knows, Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Commenting on the security measures surrounding the book – measures which also involved the publisher using multiple passwords and codenames for the project, and some very stringent embargoes on booksellers – the chair of the judges Peter Florence said he had never seen an operation like it in his 35 years in the business. He described the Non-Disclosure Agreements that people had to sign as “ferocious” and added: “As a containment operation, you have to admire its thoroughness. [However], the tone with which it was conducted does seem to be almost totalitarian – and the irony of that, given the content of the book, is not lost on anyone.”

One Amazon distribution centre sent copies out early due to a “technical error”. Speaking at the UK Booksellers Association (BA) Conference, Oren Teicher who heads up the American Booksellers Association, was in no doubt that the “error” was deliberate, perhaps because of the publicity it generated for Amazon. He said that the retailer’s “blatant, flagrant abuse of the laid-down date for the Margaret Atwood doesn’t pass the giggle test about it being alleged. Companies that size don’t make mistakes”. 

But you could argue that it is precisely large companies, because of their size, that do make genuine mistakes. Or is this to be naïve? Whatever the truth, it all served to put a book on the front pages and on the News, which everyone agreed was a good thing. Before we leave the topic, it seems fair to give the last word to Atwood: “I think anybody putting an embargo in place in the future should attach a dollar amount. They should say if you violate the embargo, this is what it will cost you and that money will go to independent bookstores.”

Hmm, the industry looks forward to the first publisher to have that conversation with its biggest customer.

At the BA Conference in Birmingham – where indies were in feisty form, despite Amazon – retail consultant Mark Pilkington received short shrift when he suggested that booksellers use technology such as interactive screens in their stores in order to compete with online retailers and attract younger customers. Current BA President Nic Bottomley, of Mr B’s Emporium in Bath, said: “I happen to believe that bookshops’ future lies not as screen-led showrooms for our own internet sales offer, but as viable and vibrant hubs with bookshops run by passionate book nerds, and like-minded businesses, pumping the lifeblood back into their communities. The secret to our long-term survival is not in playing to the strengths of online competitors; it’s in providing theatrical, atmospheric, knowledgeable or experience-heavy, book-crammed spaces.” Strong words well received.

London Wall Publishing always likes to hear about fellow indie publishers doing well, so congratulations to Canongate, Atlantic and Profile who have all reported strong figures for 2018. Canongate’s turnover increased from £8.9m to £9.5m, Atlantic recorded its first operating profit since 2009, with sales up 1.9% partly due to the success of André Aciman’s Call me by Your Name (and there is a sequel coming), while Profile reported a “solid” financial year.

There were some interesting comments from Chocolat author Joanne Harris on publishers’ love of debuts. “I’ve seen a number of debut authors emerge and get very large initial advances, which is great for a debut author but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the publisher will value that author beyond their debut. We’re getting a generation of twenty-somethings being praised and paraded around for their debut because it’s a debut and then we just don’t hear about them again…. They get replaced by the next big debut.”

We haven’t mentioned the B-word yet. OK, here goes: Babies! Ha, that fooled you. Hachette has joined Penguin Random House and HarperCollins in offering lengthy periods of paid leave to both parents. Hachette will now allow both parents the chance to take 20 weeks of fully-paid leave at any point in the 37-week eligibility period.


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.