London Wall Publishing

Shelf Life – news from around the book business – September

Well, the clocks have certainly been striking thirteen all around the book trade.  Never has the George Orwell estate known so much publicity!  Put out the buntings on the road to Wigan Pier!  Get the pigs a new pen on that famous farm!  Spruce up the aspidistras! 


You will recall that Amazon is involved in a bitter, long-running terms dispute with the Hachette group, essentially over the price of ebooks which it thinks should be cheaper.  So when the team at Amazon first stumbled across Orwell’s obscure review of a clutch of early ‘discounted’ sixpenny Penguins, it must have been delighted.  ‘Yes!  This will nail Hachette!’, they must have screamed into their flat whites and skinny lattes in Seattle.


‘The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence,’ wrote Orwell, ‘so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.’  This led Amazon to trumpet ‘Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion’ – which, of course, we were meant to remember was exactly what Apple and the major publishers were successfully sued for doing last year.


So far, so victorious to Amazon.  Hachette hacheted, you could say.  But then observers began seeking out the original text of Orwell’s essay and found this sentence, which immediately followed the one above.  ‘It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade.’  (my italics).  Yet here was Amazon brazenly claiming Orwell for their campaign for cheaper ebooks!  The chutzpah of it!


Allegations of ‘doublespeak’ began swirling around cyberspace faster than you could say ‘Two legs, four legs better’.  Amazon found itself being marched to Room 101 where it found legions of commentators all pointing out its deliberate misinterpreting of Orwell’s words. 


But the story doesn’t really end there, for the great man himself seems a little confused.  He asserted that ‘the cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books.  This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn’t hurt the trade as a whole, but for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller it is a disaster.’ (my italics again)


‘Doesn’t hurt the trade as a whole’?  Surely ‘the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller’ are the trade as a whole?


The whole saga has a long way to run yet.  The Amazon-Hachette row is fascinating, highlighting all kinds of issues over the value of books to society, the role of publishers, even the role of governments over whether they should intervene, something the author James Patterson has called for in the US.  At the very least, it’s worth noting that Amazon has been a hugely liberating force in the industry and has given many new writers a platform they could only have dreamed of ten years ago.  But their misappropriation of Orwell’s words was highly embarrassing.


New models emerge with frequency in the industry – and often disappear equally quickly.  One that has stayed the course is Unbound, whose co-founder John Mitchinson is one of the team behind TV’s QI.  The company uses a crowdfunding approach for its titles – no project proceeds unless enough potential customers have pledged money.  It proudly says that it publishes those titles that have struggled to find a home elsewhere and is currently celebrating healthy sales for Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note, co-published with Canongate, which exceeded its initial funding target of £50,000 by some 280%.


HarperCollins announced a cool innovation for Sophie Hannah’s forthcoming revival of Hercule Poirot, The Monogram Murders.  It has created an online fictional, 1920s-style hotel, The Bloxham, which browsers can ‘check into’ and explore clues concerning the dark events that took place there.  This is an excellent marriage of print and digital.


Lastly, many aspiring novelists have perhaps looked at Writers Digest and Writers News over the years.  Pause at your keyboard for a second to remember publisher David St John Thomas, founder of David & Charles, who bought these magazines and steered them to considerable success in the Nineties.  We’ve all poured over those items about short story competitions and tips for creating plotlines.  Thomas was a great railway enthusiast too, writing and publishing many books on the subject.  At his home in Nairn, Scotland, he even had a signal gantry in his garden.  As someone who helped many aspiring writers, one wishes him God speed and a clear track through the celestial publishing house.

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.