Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Greedy Magpies

The industry mourns the loss of another publishing house this week.

Well I hope the big boys are happy. The greedy magpies - large chain book stores, online book sellers and giant supermarket chains - are killing the small press with their greed.

Another excellent small press publishing house - coincidentally run by friends of mine - Humdrumming has been unable to continue and has closed up shop this week.

It's a terrible shame when you see the quality of books produced by the small presses these days. It seems to me that far more love and devotion goes into the production of quality material in both fiction and non-fiction. One only has to look at the stunning publications from my own publishers, The House of Murky Depths, or from Elastic Press, Pendragon, Telos Publishing, NewCon Press, PS Publishing to name but a few.

It's been my observation that the small press produces books with greater accuracy than the large publishing houses; they are often too big and too busy to actually be able to devote enough time to each individual title to make sure they are as perfect as they can be, despite the money the companies have to ensure that a new writer succeeds.

If you spend any time in bookstores looking at book covers, and we're all guilty of buying something because we like the cover, then it's interesting to note that sometimes the covers on the small press books don't 'look' like small press. By which I mean that often, an independently published book just looks like it's independently published. There is a feel to the way the imagery works and the fonts chosen for the lettering and so on. But the UK presses, and in particular the ones I mentioned above, seem to be transcending this and producing fare with ever increasingly commercial cover imagery. I recently examined the cover of a book from a very large publishing house - the first title from a new writer. The cover reminded me of a tv show I watch and to my eye it looked more like an unofficial guide rather than an original work of fiction. (The blurb on the back was no better. It made it sound like every other book I've seen in that genre.) As a discerning reader there's no way I'd pick up a book that seems to be merely a rechurn of something I have seen many times before. Not unless there was something there, some spark in the look of the book, in the description or whatever, to make me look twice.

It's so sad to see Humdrumming go under as they were producing some incredible titles. Likewise, Telos Publishing released some amazing horror fiction, but even they were forced to give up publishing in this line, because they couldn't compete with the money that the big publishing houses pour into promoting their books, and as a result sales were less than needed to keep the books viable. I've touched on this before. The top spot can be bought, it sometimes isn't earned. And that is a real frustration. If you have money to throw behind a book and an author - it's a guaranteed success. Buy the bestseller slot in every big book store - and it will be sold. Success, or the appearance of it, breeds success.

Of course part of the problem is that the political world sold publishers down the river some years ago when they scrapped the Net Book Agreement. The Agreement basically said that the publisher set the rrp for the book, and that was what the bookshops had to sell it for. Scrapping it meant that online retailers, chains and supermarkets could put their own price on the book and sell it at a vast discount - sometimes even less than the amount they themselves paid for it (termed a 'loss leader' in the industry - remember the furore over the Harry Potter books a couple of years back when a small bookstore could buy copies cheaper from Tescos than they could get them from the publisher, Bloomsbury!). In some ways opening the pricing up to competition was a good thing, but it meant, as always, that the author lost out on royalties, and the small press are simply unable to compete as they can't afford to offer the same discount levels as the big boys.

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