Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Risky Literature

I’ve been at the London Book Fair for the last couple of days. It’s disorientating to go from a quiet little room of one’s own to a vast hangar full of noise and people, from writing books to the world of selling them, to a place about books where you rarely see anyone reading one. It’s all talk, and fascinating talk at that.

Amongst the many interesting events – Kate Adie interviewing Hilary Mantel, the launch of the Orange Prize short list, the Author’s Lounge, a talk on selling books and organising events – the one I enjoyed the most was a debate entitled “Not to Dare: Has British Literature become risk-averse?” Chaired by Antonia Byatt, on the panel were agent Isobel Dixon of Blake Friedmann Agency, best-selling author and co-founder of the Orange Prize Kate Mosse, and recently retired Chatto editor Alison Samuel standing in for Robert McCrum, who had been stranded by the volcano.

Antonia Byatt introduced the session by describing the work of the Arts Council in supporting literature regarded as a market risk, such as poetry. 80% of published poetry is subsidised, and the Council also fund translation.

Isobel Dixon said that the publishing industry has a lot of optimists and gamblers, but the nature of risk has changed. People are more cautious, there is more conglemerisation, and books can fail because Sales and Marketing departments won’t take them. Independent publishers have the advantage of being able to move quickly and take risks, but larger publishers have to answer to parent companies and shareholders. She also commented that the trade is driven by the front list, so that risks are taken on new authors who may not even produce a second novel, and few authors get mid-list support – support for their second and third novels. More is at stake than money – there’s reputation too. Editors have to be passionate about the books they represent as they will do a lot of work for nothing before a book succeeds. It is hard to predict sales, so every book is a risk.

‘Has British Literature become risk averse?’ asked Kate Mosse. ‘No. Has British publishing? Yes.’ She agreed with Isobel Dixon that passion is vital. If an author writes a book only because she thinks it will sell it will have no integrity, and in any event she may be chasing a market that doesn’t exist by the time the book is ready. She defined literary fiction as fiction where language and ideas are a greater priority than plot and character, and felt that the gap between commercial and literary fiction has widened. For this reason any prize committed to the quality of text and the range of voices has a vital role to play. Without prizes a lot of literary fiction would have no market. She felt that while there are passionate editors in every publishing company, it is the independents who are reclaiming what publishing is about.

Alison Samuel took a different line. She had worked for a publisher that was originally an independent but was taken over by a conglomerate. If they had not been, they would not have survived. She insisted that publishing is an industry, a business, people have to make money. It is a gamble. They all agreed that British literature is not risk averse, but she challenged the implication that publishing should not be risk averse because it’s “literature” or “art”, and made an ominous reference to bankers. Editors have large egos because they have to back their judgements, they have to know they are right, but often they aren’t right and the Sales and Marketing people are not solely to blame. She described herself as “constitutionally risk-averse”, yet increasingly her career involved gambling with other people’s money; publishers gamble all the time with other people’s money. It is a strange business, but how different is it from being a banker? Publishers and editors are encouraged to have large egos, to insist they are right, but they need checks and balances.

Antonia Byatt commented that literary publishing is a long term investment, and asked if publishers are less willing to pick up authors. Isobel Dixon said she had seen authors turned down after their second or third book, and whereas previously a third book might have been bought on outline and chapter, increasingly authors were told to complete the book before it would be considered. She had recently read an article which said that all the risk is with publishers but the writer with low or no income also takes a risk (the average income of authors is around £7,000 pa). She also felt there is an obsession with youth. She questioned the way that authors are supported at the start of their careers, but dropped in the middle, although they have proved they can write and can only get better.

Kate Mosse pointed out that the point of prize money was to provide writers with a salary. It is much harder now to support people, and she felt the end of the Net Book Agreement had contributed to this. Yet she felt that authors now expect to make a living from writing, whereas when she started this was not the case. Alison Samuel responded that there are a lot of bad books, a lot of books that shouldn’t be published. She used to feel guilty about telling people in the slush pile their books were bad, but eventually she told herself that for these writers it was a hobby, they didn’t have to do it. She disagreed that publishers only wanted young writers, but reiterated that the whole thing is a gamble.

The debate continued by way of Katie Jordan and ghost writing, publicity by endorsement and word of mouth, and the role that writers, particularly best-selling authors, can play in supporting other writers, to consider the risks readers and booksellers are prepared to take. Alison Samuel felt that readers are risk averse, so three for two offers are a good way of encouraging them to try something new – they buy one they know and one or two they don’t. She also felt that retailers are definitely risk averse. Isobel Dixon considered how good booksellers are at promoting literature. Foyles, for example, do no promotion at all. (Note: Isobel Dixon has corrected this statement, please see her comments below.) People might regret the closure of some independents, but many closed because they were more expensive and never organised events. She felt that Amazon is the place for the second/third and mid list books that are not being promoted.

The debate ended and I left musing on the perennial tension between money and art. For me, one of the best confrontations with this issue is George Gissing’s New Grub Street. Gissing portrays the struggle between capital and creativity as a matter of life and death, as indeed it is. These days few writers can rely on their writing alone for their living; most of us have other jobs and we die a little every day when we go to them and not to our writing. Living in two worlds creates for some of us an uncomfortable dualism: you are writer and not-writer. You doubt your own commitment for surely if you were serious you would move to that garret? You get sucked into that other world, you succumb to other people’s agendas, you find yourself getting swept along in corporate excitement. On the other hand, you’re a writer even when you don’t have a pen in your hand, a keyboard beneath your fingertips; put crudely it’s all material, all transmutable experience. Besides, you’ve got to pay for the ink and the paper somehow.

I get home and reach for New Grub Street.


  1. You write: Isobel Dixon considered how good booksellers are at promoting literature. Foyles, for example, do no promotion at all.

    I'm afraid that's incorrect and potentially very damaging. I was at that same event and what Isobel Dixon did say was that Foyles don't price promote with deep discounting and 3 for 2s like high street stores. They do a lot of author and literary events and have great range and attract people that way, who will then pay full price. You’ve taken a very sensitive and complex issue and completely misrepresented it here to the detriment of both parties' names in this blog.

  2. Lucienne, this blog came to my attention just as I was about to interview Andre Brink at an event in Foyles, an event which completely contradicts the way you quoted me about the store. The debate we had was a complex and nuanced one, but your report loses out on a lot of that nuance - but in saying that I said that Foyles do no promotion, in particular, you completely misquoted me and said the exact opposite of what was said. I said that, in an age of deep discounting since the fall of the NBA, Foyles do not seem to need to PRICE promote (ie slash prices of books) in order to get buyers in through their doors, they gain advantage by adding value in other ways, through their range of stock, and also their varied events and promotion of authors....I added that those independents who don't add value in various ways are the ones most in danger - but there are so many like The Travel Bookshop and Daunts in London alone (all places that have been very supportive of authors and hold launches and run events that bring buyers into the shop) who are superb as well. Please do correct the details - as a literary agent and poet I fully support Foyles and other independents, and I was referring to the experience of lacklustre, passive or uninformed bookselling where I've seen some stores close in the past. Few like that would be able to survive in today's competitive climate anyway. My comments were in no way divisive and anti-independent on this - in an age of increased risk-averseness (in readers as well as publishers, as we discussed) books and writers need all the allies they can get.