London Wall Publishing

Shelf Life – news from around the book business – September

Throughout the history of the book industry there have always been ‘villains’ – not real criminals, of course, but companies or company leaders who would cause publishers angst.  For publishing houses during the Eighties and Nineties – my goodness, that’s another world, isn’t it?; pre-Internet, pre-mobile – this would either be the long-departed chain Dillons, whose owner Terry Maher waged a persistent battle to have fixed prices removed from books, or WH Smith, whose buying policies and charges for windows frequently infuriated publishers.

Looking back, those disputes seem quaint, almost provincial now.  For with the rise of Amazon and the spread of digital there arose a global beast whose roar is heard by everyone.  While publishers admit that Amazon certainly ‘gives’ in terms of exposure for books and promotion of reading, few deny that it doesn’t also ‘take’ in terms of market share and activities that traditionally only belonged to publishers – notably, the act of ‘publishing’ itself.

Which is broadly where the industry finds itself today.  Essentially, many traditional publishers remain cautious and wary of Amazon; would-be authors love the company. 

In recent weeks, there are hints that we are perhaps moving into a new phase.  Great empires do not last forever.  History is riddled with peoples and civilisations that came and went, and while no one is quite suggesting that we could write a version of Shelley’s famous poem and call it ‘Amazandias’ – ‘My name is Jeffrey Bezos, king of kings/Look on my works, he Mighty, and despair…’ – it’s fair to say that the company has had its toughest few weeks in terms of PR.

The New York Times published a blistering expose of the Internet giant’s culture and employment practices that resulted in the highest number of Comments the newspaper has ever received, and a worldwide debate on the veracity – or not – of the statements made.  It also forced Bezos to issue a statement to staff, which naturally made its way to the press. 

Coupled with the ongoing investigation by the European Commission into Amazon’s dominance of the digital marketplace, plus a letter from some 575 US authors urging the US Department of Justice to investigate its similar dominance on their side of the Atlantic – not forgetting the bad publicity over its tax avoidance schemes – and all this amounts to something of an annus miserabilis for the company. 

Meanwhile, of course, its healthy sales continue and numerous authors – like Susan Hill – choose to publish various ‘shorts’ via Amazon.  The Internet giant is a long way from being ‘two vast and trunkless legs of stone’, but it’s worth remembering names like Woolworths, John Menzies and C&A…smaller entities, true, but once a staple of our everyday lives.

Self-published or independently published titles are an increasingly important part of the industry, and every few weeks or so comes a piece of news which emphasises their growing status.  The Gulf Coast Bookstore in Fort Myers, Florida, only stocks books by local, indie authors.  It has been so successful that the owner, Patti Brassard Jefferson, is to open another branch, PJ Books, in the same town.  The Gulf Coast branch has this lovely quote from Haruki Murakami on its website:  “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

What will be interesting to watch is the point at which an independent publishing platform that currently accepts more or less anything starts to say ‘thank you for your work, but we have already published three titles that were very similar, so we don’t feel it is quite right for us….’.  When that happens, we will have a situation when the difference between ‘indie platform’ publishers and traditional publishers will start to disappear.

All of which makes the publishing business such a fascinating arena to watch.

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.