There were many problems about life in London during our annual visit late last month, but happily the state of the British book business, at least as reflected in last year's sales, and a slightly-better-than-expected Christmas (in contrast to our own slightly-worse-than-expected one) wasn't one of them.
War anxiety was, if anything, even stronger than in New York, with tanks ringing Heathrow Airport for much of our visit, guarding apparently against the likelihood of an airliner being shot down on takeoff by a portable mortar fired from a nearby highway; Prime Minister Tony Blair was busy defending himself from a largely hostile press and populace for his steadfast stand alongside President Bush in the run-up to an Iraq war; motorists who drive into central London were preparing, furiously, to pay a daily charge for the privilege; and a recent derailment on the usually efficient Underground system had closed two heavily traveled lines until further notice, making some of our planned visits—to BBC Worldwide, for instance, in North London—impractical in the time at our disposal.
Most of the 15 or so publishers at houses large and small to whom we spoke felt that 2002 had not been a bad year, despite a mid-year flush of returns, and sagging fall sales; a late Christmas sales rush, and a few surprising hits, notably one from Bloomsbury that hasn't hit our shores yet (see below) had helped to end the year in respectable fashion.
There are two universal anxieties for British publishers, one shared with their American counterparts, one not: the shared problem is that of an essentially flat book market, with sales that are simply not keeping pace with a growing population, and despite such consciousness-raising devices as World Book Day—much more heavily promoted in Britain than here—and a government that at times actively promotes school reading programs, publishers feel they are losing ground to other forms of leisure entertainment. The anguish that is special to British publishers is the extraordinary pressure on margins created by the ever-increasing push for higher discounts, especially by supermarkets that sell books, most notably Tesco, and which seem to be using them as loss leaders to bring extra customers into the stores. Already it is estimated that advance sales of the new Harry Potter, not due until June, but already being advertised at higher discounts than any bookstore can offer, have deprived legitimate book retailers of several million pounds in sales.
'Furious Level of Price Slashing'
From his viewpoint in the editor's chair at the Bookseller' Nick Clee sees "a furious level of price slashing," with the new Potter being offered at 50%—55% off list price. "It's setting people at each other's throats," he said, "with merchants competing for market share rather than trying, as they should, to expand the market." There is a suspicion, he said, that some booksellers are actually buying books from Tesco to be able to sell them at their own discounts, since they can buy them there more cheaply than from regular suppliers.
Another problem in London, much more severe than in the U.S., is that authors and agents are increasingly seeing their royalties decline as they are based on ever-higher discounts. The magazine had recently quoted Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors, as saying that the proportion of author royalties now coming in at a lower rate because of deep discounting "is now at absurd proportions." Jonathan Lloyd of Curtis Brown, head of the Association of Authors' Agents, said that U.K. discounts and promotional costs "are now almost out of control, and certainly higher than in any other market in the world." Agents were sympathetic to the pressures of publishers, he said, but "we have to draw a line in the sand. At some point publishers are going to have to do the same with retailers, or margin will continue to be chipped away."
Of the past Christmas sales, Clee saw them as "perhaps a percentage point or two lower than in 2001," but that, as he noted, had been a particularly strong year, and "given what's been happening elsewhere, our Christmas wasn't at all bad." Despite a feeling in some quarters that the past year had been a tough one, Bookscan figures of actual sales showed they had been comparable with the year before.
An important initiative in the British trade has been one for automated and standardized returns, which has been given new impetus by the leadership of its committee by Time Warner managing director David Young. Several Waterstone's branches are now participating, exchanging electronic returns notes with Penguin and Macmillan, the leaders among publisher adherents, and there is hope that it will increasingly develop into an industry-wide drive.
Canongate's Dashing Byng
One of the first publishers talked to was the charismatic and peripatetic Jamie Byng of Canongate, dashing through London on his way to speak at a conference at the Taiwan Book Fair. Having just driven down, in less than 12 hours, from Edinburgh, Canongate's home, and preparing to fly out to the Far East that very night Byng was understandably breathless, but jubilant at a year of success beyond his dreams. Not only did his little company (which opened a small U.S. office last year) have the Man Booker winner, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, but his publication of Michael Faber's Crimson Petal and the White had been the biggest commercial hit of his career. Meanwhile Pi was up for Book of the Year at the Publishing News Nibbies awards on February 24, and Canongate was a candidate for Publisher of the Year, with many betting he would get it. (He did. See sidebar, page 4.)
Byng is equally active at home and internationally. He works closely with Harcourt in the U.S., whose editor-at-large, Ann Patty, originally showed him Pi before it was published in the author's native Canada—"a wonderful stroke of luck," said Byng. Even before the Booker win the book had sold nearly 30,000 copies. Faber's book was also co-published with Harcourt, via editor Drenka Willen: "It's the most satisfying co-publishing arrangement, with brainstorming at every level," observed Byng. For Crimson Petal, however, Canongate retained all translation rights, and the book has now been sold into 26 languages. "We sell all our rights directly, we don't use sub-agents," said Byng. "And we're all the time listening as well as talking, so we hear about lots of interesting things." As a result, Byng's list has far more than a usual number of translations, including most notably the just-published Italian bestseller I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti.
Another of Byng's "natural relationships" in New York is with Morgan Entrekin at Grove Atlantic, with whom he shares a certain image of hard-partying enthusiasm and flair. Grove Atlantic also shares its office space with Marion Brown of Canongate U.S. One of the books Byng is publishing this spring directly into the U.S. (as a trade paperback) is The Cutting Room, a dark thriller starring a gay Glasgow antique dealer by first-time Scottish author Louise Welsh. "Our primary focus will continue to be the U.K., but now we will publish books directly into the U.S. sometimes instead of just distributing them," he said. He has world English rights on the books he does Stateside, but can also paperback books from other houses in the U.K., and sell paperback rights in the U.S. (as he did very profitably in the case of Will Ferguson's satire on self-help publishing, Happiness, which made a six-figure sale to HarperCollins).
Another pet project of Byng's is a series of short retellings of celebrated myths by notable writers, for which he has signed up a stellar list of 19 foreign houses. Karen Armstrong and Margaret Atwood are among the contributors to the first selection, which will appear in the fall of next year (Grove in the U.S., Knopf in Canada). Byng is the first to assert that while he may be the creative driving force behind Canongate, his partner David Graham is the sales and business brains of the operation, having raised it in less than 10 years from annual sales of half a million pounds (mostly in Scotland) to an estimated £5—£6 million (over $10 million) projected for this year.
Hodder's American Adventure
Hodder's Martin Neild was paid a visit on the very day the company announced its long-awaited arrival on U.S. shores (News, February 17)—not, as had been expected, via the purchase of another publishing house by parent bookselling giant W.H. Smith, but with a standalone Hodder U.S. outpost based in the New York offices of Simon & Schuster, and with support services provided by them. The genial Neild is the point man for the venture, and expects to be making frequent trips to New York to sign up a managing director and some editors. They will be recruiting entirely in the U.S., and their focus will be on titles for the American market. "They can have some of our books, where we have the rights, for the American market, but only if they want them; no force-feeding." Neild said the move was "ambitious—we want it to grow," though as yet there was no set number of annual titles in mind. Hodder, said Neild, is Britain's leading fiction publisher, and "we badly need an entrée into the largest English-language market in the world." They have just come off what he described as "a breakthrough year," with sales up 11% over 2001, a profit growth of about 18%, and "have grown market share in a static market," claiming nearly 15% of the fiction sales, up from 12.6% only a year ago.
Part of the move into the U.S. will be the recently purchased John Murray imprint, with its list of sturdy nonfiction titles and its reach into the educational market. With Roland Phillips heading the nonfiction side, and Anya Serota, ex-Picador, buying fiction, Hodder Murray, as it's known, will be expected, and will be allowed, to bid if necessary against Hodder and Headline for properties. "It's all about editorial passion, and that's what will win," Neild declared.
Hit authors for the firm include such English-style winners as gardening expert Alan Titchmarsh and cricketer Mike Atherton and native-grown fiction authors like Martina Cole, whose gritty East End novels have been huge successes, Jill Mansell, Lynn V. Andrews, John Connolly and Mike Gale. Jean Auel was among huge Stateside authors (the house reissued her previous titles in paperback months before The Shelters of Stone hit), along with Janet Evanovich (up to #1 on the list for the first time), James Patterson, Jonathan Kellerman and Jeffery Deaver. Despite the furor in the U.S. over Barnes & Noble acquiring Sterling, W.H. Smith's ownership of Hodder has caused scarcely a ripple beyond initial concerns that it might unduly favor the house's books. WHS publishes some Hodder children's and educational titles in special lines, but nothing else, "and they have nothing to do with us operationally," said Neild.
The View from the Sales Floor
For the Booksellers Association, Tim Godfray had a stiff-upper-lip summary of the year in British bookselling: "Not as good as we expected, perhaps, but others fared far worse." Unlike the scene on our side of the water, the British independents, according to Godfray, may have done slightly better, proportionally, than the chains in the course of the year. There were a number of fears he listed: the threat of terrorism, and increasing transportation difficulties, which might particularly affect traffic in city center stores; the huge discounting pressure, which affected booksellers' margins as well as publishers'; and "a feeling that we're not bringing enough new people into the habit of book buying."
With the latter in mind he noted that Book Tokens, the scheme the BA runs for the whole country, will offer 14 million tokens at a dollar off for World Book Day later this month, another effort to encourage reading by price promotion, and bringing the occasion, often aimed more at children, a "stronger adult dimension"; and he was enthusiastic about a planned initiative by the BBC called The Big Read, also launching this month, in which an initial show on BBC 2 will have celebrities discussing their favorite books, to be followed by a nationwide drive to discover the public's top 100 titles, which will then be heavily publicized. It's no secret that this plan, warmly endorsed by several of the book people we talked to, is an attempt to provide a British TV book boost comparable to that once offered by Oprah's book club in the States. The impact a search for "the Great Briton" had last fall, in which the public selection of Winston Churchill gave a strong sales boost to several books by and about him,, has created optimism about prospects for The Big Read.
The rush to ever-deeper discounting, with its disastrous impact on margins, is "depressing and frustrating," said Godfray, but there's nothing the Association can do about it; it is prevented by law from interfering in any way with prices. Meanwhile, he observed that W.H. Smith had lost Christmas sales by refusing to go after low-margin business. Waterstone's and Ottakar's, the other big chains, had both performed somewhat better, and Blackwell's seemed to be slowly making improvements under a new management team. The market share of the chains could only grow, said Godfray, but he did see the remaining independents as stronger than they were. Still, there was a "perception that publishers are not treating customers fairly." And here the conflict is not so much between indies and chains as between retailers and book clubs, direct mail and online services, which all offer bigger discounts. "There is a perception among the public that bookstores are expensive places to buy books. I'd like to see a more structured rollout, as in the music business."
There's also the threat of sales taxes on books, still zero-rated in Britain, but that may come under growing pressure from the European Union, most of whose members now tax books at various levels. At present it requires a unanimous EU vote to change this, but Godfray believes the Union would ultimately settle for a low level of taxes on books, and with a growth in its membership, a change might be possible by majority vote, and then Britain would have to comply. Another cloud on the horizon is likely EU pressure to drop printed prices on books (as is the practice now in many EU countries). If Britain had to follow suit, as seems likely ultimately, it would cause havoc with printing and inventorying—though Godfray gave the impression he thought it might be advantageous to have booksellers in effect set their own prices. The threat of online selling overwhelming bricks-and-mortar stores had now receded, he felt, to the point that "we're no longer hares caught in the headlights of online."
Matters of Taxes and Copyright
The question of sales taxes on books is also one that concerns Ronnie Williams, Publishers Association head. At the present moment, electronic publications, unlike books, are taxed in the U.K., and that is an apparent discrepancy that will have to be ironed out with the EU. Williams wants to "hold the fort" on zero book taxes, and present electronic books as "services" that are therefore in a different tax framework. The EU will be reviewing the whole case for taxing books this year, and he is taking the British case to various conferences.
Williams has been working for some time on a copyright directive, and even paid an extensive visit to the U.S. last summer to see how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was being enforced. "We need a fast track on copyright, and I think the U.S. has one, and Europe lacks it," he said. He had talked to representatives of the FBI, U.S. Customs, Adobe, eBay, Sony and others, and had found the copyright system seems to be working well without litigation. "I wanted to find out what were the vital elements that seemed to make it work so well in the U.S. and to recommend a light touch for Europe, in the American style," he said, in a welcome change from the anti-American stance one becomes all too accustomed to in Europe.
About the book business in general, Williams was "cautiously optimistic," after a year, and particularly a Christmas season, in which "winners and losers were quite marked." He felt the emphasis on the crucial nature of Christmas had become stronger than ever, with publishers loading up the season with their biggest titles. "So blockbuster titles, most of which seemed to be in nonfiction, are more important than ever, but with a shorter shelf life," he noted.
Williams too was buoyed by the thought of The Big Read campaign on BBC, "which could put a big book promotion into the middle of the year, right where it will do the most good." He is cheered also by the success of a company like Book People, a unique British operation that takes selections of books around to people where they work, selling on the street and in offices. "It shows that if you take books to the public, it will buy them" he said.
He was less sanguine, however, about the discount situation, which he felt was running amok, with publishers and agents beginning to quarrel among themselves, as well as with retailers, over royalties and discounts. He estimated that an astonishing 59% of the books currently sold in Britain are discounted in one way or another—often in ways, like "three for the price of two" or "three for 10 pounds" in paperbacks, that are virtually unknown in the States, where discounts are normally applied to individual titles.
Questions for Art Book Publishers
An interesting, sometimes deliberately perverse take on some current trends in publisher thinking were put forth by Jamie Camplin, editorial director at Thames & Hudson, which of course specializes in illustrated books. The three mantras he cited—aim to lower your prices, stick to what you know sells, and cut your inventory costs—were, Camplin argued, ultimately self-defeating. Creating lower-priced books, where he insists that good art books take solid investment to produce properly, leads to "low prices for what is essentially crap." He cited a big Thames & Hudson book called (in the U.S.) The Earth from Above, which had sold much more strongly in the U.K. (approaching 200,000 copies), at a considerably higher price than in the U.S.
He felt that such tools as Bookscan, which offer exacting and highly detailed close-ups of sales performance, are being abused. "Take an idea to an editor these days and he/she doesn't turn first to the project. The sales statistics provide the necessary information: this subject/author doesn't sell. This kills innovation." On inventory, he feels that "for illustrated books you have to take a long-term view. For an art book publisher, having plenty of inventory is not irresponsible, it's essential."
T&H, he said, stresses co-editions because that spreads the publisher's presence around the world, without undue dependence on any one particular market. Last year, for instance, the company signed deals for 142 co-edition sales with companies outside the U.S., "and we're budgeting for a 25% increase in 2003." Inside the U.S., T&H works currently with most of its potential rivals, including Chronicle, Bulfinch, Abrams, Rizzoli, STC and HarperCollins, and is developing closer relations with many U.S. museums, including publishing projects this spring with the National Gallery in Washington, the Getty, Los Angeles County Museum and Forth Worth. A splashy upcoming launch at the company (with a launch party planned for the London Book Fair later this month) is of a series of edgy, highly illustrated city guides called Style City, with the initial volumes on London and Paris (yes, New York is upcoming in the fall).
Camplin had a couple of final boasts to offer "I think T&H Inc. has perhaps been the only illustrated imprint to flourish inside the U.S. since 9/11." And its business in the U.K. was up 20% last year, "so the mood here is probably more upbeat than among most other U.K. houses."
The Passion of Transworld's Janson-Smith
It was modestly upbeat at Transworld, where the ever-ebullient Patrick Janson-Smith, now just publisher and therefore returned to his passion, the acquisition of books rather than the administrative duties he would as soon leave to others, was the spokesman. "We beat budget, but it was a tough year, and some books were late, which doesn't help," he said. Celebrity books, which have done well for the house in the past, "simply weren't there," but Terry Pratchett, its great money-maker, had his biggest hardcover yet, and other faithfuls, like Andy McNab and Ben Elton, did very well.
Gavin Menzies's 1421: The Year China Discovered America had been "a bit of a surprise" (also doing well for Morrow here), and the company had gone "roaring into 2003" with the latest Bill Bryson and Joanna Trollope in paperback. Books he was particularly excited about (and Janson-Smith is always "passionate" about several titles) include a first novel called Making Love, narrated by a library book, Mark Haddon's upcoming Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the Boudica trilogy, about the ancient British queen by Manda Scott, Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Scribner here in the fall) and Mission Flats by William Landay (Delacorte here). Among current titles, not necessarily their own, he is particularly keen on Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and promises a "super secret book in the spring" about which he will say no more.
Seeking a Bigger Share at S & S
At Simon & Schuster, Ian Chapman is "reasonably satisfied" with his progress in raising the company's image in the U.K., is now determined to make "serious money" this year. The Free Press imprint will be launched in London in the coming year, which will give more entrée into university bookstores and the academic market, and a new finance director has been "getting things in shape."
He is fascinated with the new link in the U.S. between Hodder (where he once worked in the paperback division, and therefore has a "soft spot" for them) and S&S in New York. "I think we'll be seen as in association with them, which will be good for us here." Meanwhile he finds the British trade "very competitive and not very comfortable." He adds: "If we said yes to all the requests for special terms we'd be out of business in a few days." Waterstone's, his biggest customer, "is getting its stuff together," but W.H. Smith remains more problematic—though it is a strong potential customer for the kind of mass market fiction on which S&S here has traditionally relied. "I still feel we can do better with mass market. We were based heavily on backlist, and there's now a lot of pressure on space for backlist."
In the past year he has been growing the nonfiction list much more rapidly than fiction—40% as against 10%—and Pocket Books is probably 40% of his business now. He's been doing well with Jennifer Weiner's books, is bringing Jackie Collins over for the paperback publication of Deadly Embrace, and was delighted to have won Sting's memoir (for less than some of his rivals bid, because the singer liked the company's approach). With a four-pronged attack now—S&S, Scribner, Pocket and a children's division—Chapman can "feel the bits coming together, but we're nowhere near where I want to be yet in terms of the bottom line."
TW's Young: Margin Giveaway 'Insane'
For David Young at the now-renamed Time Warner U.K., it's been "a very good year" in the bookshops, with double-digit growth, but not so good in the supermarkets, where the lack of a strong paperback list had slowed things down "Christmas didn't really happen for us," with the latest Patricia Cornwell, her Jack the Ripper tome, arriving a bit late to help, though now doing very well, with 200,000-plus sales, and a new Scarpetta in the pipeline, for which the fans will be clamoring soon.
But Young is gloomy about the "inexorable pressure" on margins. "It's insane, giving away your potential margins on something like Harry Potter. It's giving away margin needlessly, all for market share as opposed to profit, and I don't know what we can do about it. How can we have a profitable industry between us, with this going on?"
Young's leadership of the committee pursuing improvements in the returns process has drawn wide praise, and he is sanguine about the ultimate benefits more participation in the initiative will bring. "The technical problems were harder and more expensive to resolve than we had anticipated, but I think we've moved it up to a higher level of attention," he said. The automatic reconciliation of credit and moneys received on debated sums should help to speed the process and remove a lot of unnecessary aggravation, Young said. "Ultimately, it should help make returns more orderly, and lead to better managed inventory systems."
TW is the British publisher of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's Leadership, and one of its biggest recent hits has been the paperback of Sarah Waters's Fingersmith. Books that have been doing spectacularly in Britain but have yet to find an American publisher are Robert Radcliffe's Under an English Heaven, about American pilots based in Britain in WWII and their courageous exploits in the air and loves on the ground, and a pair of books by an elderly Northerner, William Woodruff, now living in retirement in Florida, about his early life in Britain, set in a place he calls Nab End in Lancashire.
Breaking Things Up at HC
At HarperCollins the story is one of continuous reshaping of a somewhat unwieldy creature into something far more sleek and decentralized—and also, as Nick Clee at the Bookseller noted, a house that has an increasing number of women in leading positions, compared to the much more male Harper of yesteryear. Publisher Victoria Barnsley recalled that the trade division had formerly been split into two, but that was still "far too big and amorphous," so there are now five divisions: reference, entertainment (led by Trevor Dolby, over from Orion), fiction (led by another newcomer, Caroline Michel from Random), Thorsons (mind and spirit titles) and children's. "This gives everyone involved more of a sense of focus, of ownership," said Barnsley. "We've created more little publishing companies out of one very big one," adding that publicity and marketing had also been decentralized, with each new division getting its own.
Harper had enjoyed "an excellent year, with a not-bad Christmas," said Barnsley, though noting, as did others, that the less-than-stellar performance of the W.H. Smith chain over the festive season had an adverse effect. Barnsley was among those citing "an air of uncertainty" about the prospects for the year ahead because of the possibility of war with Iraq, and the resulting economic uncertainty and decline in consumer confidence. "That's our chief concern." A mature market, with an apparent dearth of new readers, was also worrying. "We're always thinking of ways to expand readership," citing a joint promotion with the London Times in which the house offered 50% off a select list of books.
Noting that she had bought Michael Cunningham's The Hours when she was at Fourth Estate, and that it was now a hit movie (just opening in London during our visit), Barnsley wondered aloud whether perhaps in some ways public taste wasn't improving. About one thing, though, she had very decided views: "I think books are rather underpriced. If we could get the price up, then the retailers could get a better price too." But she agreed with the majority that discounting had got "out of hand—it's just lazy retailing."
Books she's excited about are Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People (to be done by Fourth Estate in the U.S.), which she expected to be "huge"; the Quentin Tarantino novel Kill Bill, that Miramax is publishing here soon, Footballer by British soccer superstar David Beckham, which the house got for "not nearly as much" as some of the colossal sums being thrown around in the British press; and the work of Josephine Fox, lured away from Headline.
Restructuring at Random
At another of the biggest trade publishers, Random House, it had also been a time of recent reorganization, with leadership changes at both CHA (Century, Hutchinson, Heinemann and Arrow). And CCV (Cape, Chatto, Secker and Vintage), designed to improve the performance of the house's mass market and literary paperback imprints. Kate Parkin left as managing director of CHA, with CEO Gail Rebuck saying she thought an injection of "new energy, focus and enthusiasm" was needed for the division—not nearly as severe a slap as Ann Godoff received when she was dismissed at Random in New York, but still a departure that caused a stir in London. Former sales director Richard Cable took over, and Susan Sandon, a communications and marketing exec, became his deputy. Caroline Michel, who had headed Vintage, was promoted to deputy publisher of CCV, but left for an even bigger new position at Harper within weeks (see above).
Rebuck said Century/Arrow were about to announce new lists that would reflect a new look. "We need the lists to have a stronger marketing orientation, in effect to reinvent our paperbacks." Meanwhile she had found that many of the house's reprints had outperformed expectations, especially nonfiction ones. "Personal stories in trade paperback—that's been the big change."
Overall, the house's grosses were 11%—12% ahead of the previous year, but with higher returns and a softening of backlist sales clouding the picture somewhat. Random was discounting fewer titles than previously, but some of the existing discounts were deeper. Paperback pricing in the stores seems to have settled to a routine three for the price of two, or three for 10 pounds, no matter what the format. The "quality B format has become the new mass market," Rebuck observed. Transworld was "level pegging" with the previous year, and Christmas had been "very solid, with no special surprises." The recently acquired Harvill Press had doubled its sales on some titles since the takeover, and the children's division, now under David Fickling, had gotten off to "a great start."
Among notable titles and authors in the past year, Karen Slaughter and Tess Gerritsen had both been placed on the list, it seemed that Dr. Robert C. Atkins's diet approach was returning to favor, as in the States, and Random imprints published (or were about to publish) no fewer than seven out of the 20 chosen by Granta as the most promising young British novelists. Books in which she took particular pleasure, and which as yet have no American publisher, include Douglas Kennedy's 1940s Greenwich Village novel The Pursuit of Happiness and a prize-winning study of noted British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (he designed the British Embassy in Washington, the celebrated Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall, and many notable English country houses) by Jane Ridley. Random had done a million copies of Ian McEwan's Atonement in the first year, and had scored "an amazing breakthrough" with Alison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It.
Bloomsbury: Another Surprise Hit
One of the great success stories of recent years among smaller publishers has been that of Bloomsbury (Publisher of the Year at the Nibbies for two successive years recently), and chairman Nigel Newton took pleasure in pointing out that, while awaiting the new Harry Potter volume in June, the house had stepped into the breach once more by having what was universally acknowledged as the sleeper bestseller of the Christmas season: Ben Schott's Schott's Original Miscellany, an eccentric, beautifully designed collection of lists and odd facts that still headed bestseller lists six weeks after Christmas, having landed there around Christmas Day.
Schott, who had worked in advertising and then as a photographer, had designed the book himself and sent it to Newton personally, who delightedly turned it over to editor Rosemary Davidson. "It was a beautiful physical object; its look is an essential part of its charm," Newton said. Sales director David Ward took it up "passionately," and the house began with a printing of 30,000 copies in late October. The Blackwell's bookstore chain took it up, the Guardian gave it a front cover in its magazine section, calling it the "publishing sensation of the year," then there was a partial serialization in the Telegraph just before Christmas, which again described it as a sensation. "So people rushed out to get it," and, proving it is "not just a gift book," Schott's still heads the list, having sold more than a quarter million copies to date. "There will be others," promised Newton, who said the book, so far unseen in the U.S., will be published here by Bloomsbury USA this fall, with 30% new copy especially for an American edition. Already, he declared, St. Martin's sales reps, which sell Bloomsbury's titles, report a deal of excitement among American booksellers.
As the man at the center of the fuss over Harry Potter discounts, Newton has held firm on his terms. "The last thing we want is to offer extra discounts on a book everyone wants to buy." As to reports, which surface from time to time in the British press, that Potter author J.K. Rowling, exhausted by her mammoth effort on the new title, and wealthy now beyond dreams, may be about to take down her shingle, Newton was scornful. "She has been deeply involved in a book that comes out at 255,000 words and put every effort into that although by then of course she didn't need to write anything else," he said. "She has no notion of giving up."
The key elements that have driven the company in the past year to a trading position "slightly ahead of market expectations" have included, beyond Potter, Joanna Trollope's highly successful, set-in-America Girl from the South, Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, Schott's, of course, and by no means least a massive compilation weighing in at least 10 pounds, Business: The Ultimate Resource, which has already sold in 12 overseas countries (Perseus in the U.S.). Other significant staples are the recently acquired A.C. Black list, Whitaker's Almanac, purchased from Her Majesty's Stationery Office, on which Bloomsbury has "significantly increased sales," and the Writers and Artists Yearbook, bought from Who's Who.
New and forthcoming books about which Newton has great hopes include the new Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, due in May, Sophie Dahl's just-published Man with the Dancing Eyes, a book called Courage by Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury Secretary) Gordon Brown and paperbacks of Tartt and Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex—"0ne of my favorites," said Newton.
The Optimistic Nick Robinson
Another smaller publisher, though one with a much lower profile, is Constable & Robinson, whose Nick Robinson at his own firm recently took over the venerable Constable name and backlist. The company occupies rather spartan offices considerably further down the grimy Fulham Palace Road in Hammersmith, West London, from HarperCollins's palatial ones. Here Robinson, a rumpled, friendly figure much admired by many of his colleagues in the London trade, presides over a list producing some 130 titles a year, with strength in historical biography, crime fiction, health and psychology titles, a series of illustrated reference works on a range of subjects called Mammoth Books, and a small children's line.
All this brings in an annual turnover of about £5 million (about $8.5 million), having "done what other companies did years ago," as Robinson notes, and become vertical, with Constable hardcovers and Robinson paperbacks. "We're successful because we spend a disproportionate amount on promotion, so people notice our books."
C&R does not distribute in the States, but wherever possible its editors buy world rights, or at least world English, and sell them on. Herman Graf at Carroll & Graf is a frequent U.S. customer, a few are done with St. Martin's Press, a handful with Walker, some psychology titles with New York University Press. "Any English-language publisher in the humanities or history has to think of the U.S. and Australia," Robinson said.
Among books Robinson is particularly proud of at present are Global Disorder by Robert Harvey, a journalist and former MP who examines current danger points around the world, including the U.S.-Iraq standoff, which Carrol & Graf are doing in the States, and a paperback edition of a leftist call to arms, The Best Democracy That Money Can Buy by Greg Palast. A book he brought in from Text in Australia is a whimsical, illustrated delight, pitting notable figures through the ages against each other in a series of tennis matches, called The Tournament by John Clarke. A stirring book, also illustrated, about British war poets of WWI, Anthem for Doomed Youth, was also taken by C&G for the U.S. market (with a changed title). New biographies include authoritative ones on Rossini, Roger Bacon, Erich Maria Remarque and a book on the world's secret societies by house regular Jason Ridley. A rare translation was picked up from a Swedish publisher: the bestselling Bodil Jonsson's Unwinding the Clock: Ten Thoughts About Time, a small but profound philosophical book for which Robinson has high hopes on publication later this month. In fiction, C&R has Elizabeth Peters, recently did Michael Malone's latest, Red Clay, Blue Cadillac. A book banned in China, Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui, was published in the U.S. (by S & S) on September 11, 2001 and disappeared without trace, so Robinson will bring it back in paperback. (it sold 120,000 in the U.K. in hardcover).
Despite his company's comparatively small stature, Robinson is more optimistic than most about the British business. "I see a good variety of chains of different sizes, strong independents well served by wholesalers and aggressively marketed non-traditional outlets," he said. As to the disquiet about excessive discounts and demands on terms, he is quietly philosophical. "It simply means that on certain titles they're not going to make any money." And he adds that "Christmas was most instructive. You saw several books without large advances that were not discounted, and which did wonderfully well," citing Bloomsbury's Schott's and Time Warner's Nab End titles.
The Serpent's Tail Tale
An even smaller publisher, with a very different profile and approach, is Serpent's Tail, whose director Peter Ayrton met us in a Soho coffee shop, on his way to an author event at Foyles's newly refurbished bookstore on Charing Cross Road (the company's West London office was a bit out of the way at this time of curtailed Tube travel possibilities).
The house has a dark, edgy list, with much noir fiction and fiction in translation, and with about 25% in music, popular culture and politics. Ayrton works closely with Grove Atlantic on some titles (for example, the controversial French memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which sold so strongly for the house last year that it caused a spike of 50% in its entire sales performance). "We try to sell U.S. rights to the big publishers when we have them, but most of our books are too dark; American publishers don't like downbeat endings," Ayrton said. But in view of the success of some of the movies based on books on their list, e.g. Louis Begley's About Schmidt and the French hit The Piano Teacher he wondered aloud: "Do those editors really have a feeling for the market?" Talking of movies, ST also has the memoir Finding Fish by Antwone Fisher on which the Denzel Washington movie is based, hopes to do well with it as a tie-in when the movie appears in London later this month.
There are some familiar names on the list: Most of Walter Mosley's work, the early books of George P. Pelecanos, the work of the legendary and largely out-of-print Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), a new book upcoming by cult actress/author Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul) called Blind Love. ST also has Swimming Underground, her memoir of life with Andy Warhol. An English-born exile in Hollywood, Gavin Lambert, will do an authorized biography of Natalie Wood, and there will be a new title by William Thornberg, author of the classic Cutter & Bone, called To Die in California. There's also a book about crime writers who went to Hollywood called Heartbreak and Vine by Woody Haut. A book about Zacarias Moussaoui, allegedly the 20th man in the 9/11 attacks, now awaiting trial in the U.S., by his brother Abd Samed Moussaui, as told to a French journalist, is due this spring, and will be done in the U.S. by Seven Stories. Noted writers in translation include Juan Goytisolo and Antoine Bellow, whose The Missing Piece is being done here by Harcourt. Books to which they don't have rights to sell, or that aren't sold, are distributed in the U.S. by Consortium.
Ayrton has a less sanguine outlook on the British trade than some. "Overall, sales are pretty stagnant—though, astonishingly, books seem to be holding their own among the other distractions. But our market share is so small that just two or three hits can double our sales." He finds that these days he's selling more in the chains than he used to, though agrees with his bigger brethren that heavily discounting brand-new books seems "totally irrational."
Virgin Books' Best Ever
A very different kind of publishing is offered at Virgin Books, an outgrowth of Richard Branson's empire, where a handful of top-selling health and pop culture titles drive the list. Managing director K.T. Forster described last year's results as "our best ever," with a pair of titles that stayed in the top 10 on the nonfiction bestseller list for six months: Carol Vorderman's health and diet book Detox for Life (a sequel to her earlier bestseller The Detox Diet) and a book by 17-year-old Gareth Dates, a runner-up in TV's Pop Idol sweepstakes, who had sold a quarter of a million copies. (A second edition of Vorderman's book is about to appear, and Forster has sold U.S. rights to Rutledge Hill Press.)
Virgin is strong in midlist show business biography and sports publishing, a combination that makes it "very stable and solid," and she continues to concentrate on building up its national profile, as well as its reputation with mass retailers like W.H. Smith. "I think we punch above our weight," was how she pithily put it.
She is looking to expand fiction into a more general line beyond the erotica in which it currently specializes, and is also looking more closely, after Dates's success, at the teenage market. She would like to do more co-ventures, building on the Virgin brand name, but is cautious about spreading it too far too fast.
She took on a U.S. distributor last year, CDS, but so far has not achieved what she had hoped for from sales here. "Still, I'm sanguine about it in the long run."
Pan Macmillan: Xmas to the Rescue
David North at Pan Macmillan described a year when "Christmas got us out of jail," turning it into a record sales year. All this happened against a market of "tough trading, with both advances and discounts escalating," and with the company coming out of "a weak summer."
The star Christmas books, all with sales of more than 100,000, were David Blanes's Mysterious Stranger, a memoir by BBC-TV personality John Simpson, and, of course (Lord) Jeffrey Archer's Prison Diaries, the subject of a lot of cloak-and-dagger maneuvering by Britain's tabloid press. Among names well known to American readers, strong sales were scored by the likes of Scott Turow, David Baldacci, Ken Follett and Minette Walters. Roy Jenkins's book on Churchill had done "brilliantly," considerably aided by a BBC series in which Winston was chosen as the "great Briton" of the century.
The house contains four imprints: Boxtree, Channel Four, Picador (which has The Lovely Bones, doing well enough in Britain but on nothing like the U.S. level) and Pan itself. It's 60% paperback, though the divisions are sometimes, said North, "a bit blurry." The children's line is its most successful segment, with Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism (Harper here) by Jamie Byng's sister Georgia, a very big success, in a lineup that includes Megan Cabot's The Princess Diaries and Across the Nightingale Floor (Penguin in the U.S.).
Books the house is keen on but that have as yet made no U.S. sale are a "fresh and contemporary" novel by Tabish Khiar called The Bus Stops and a book called City of Abraham by journalist Ed Platt (Leadville), which describes contemporary life in the largely Palestinian city of Hebron, and the conflicts there.
A Bullish Moment at Penguin
At Penguin, in CEO Anthony Forbes-Watson's splendid office overlooking a great sweep of the Thames, next door to the Savoy Hotel, the mood was intensely upbeat on a corporate level, if somewhat more subdued in terms of looking at the general picture. For a start, sales for the entire Pearson publishing group in 2002 pushed it to the top in the Bookscan figures for U.K. publishers, moving it ahead of the Bertelsmann group, with £183.3 million (about $300 million) against £l68.3 million (about $277 million). This represented an increase of about 11% over 2001 sales, and was helped by a strong contribution from Dorling Kindersley, and the 2002 acquisition of the Rough Guides.
Visibly more relaxed than he had been this time last year, when he was still trying to integrate DK, and recovering from the recent move into the palatial quarters in Shell-Mex House, Forbes-Watson said that "this is the first year since 1999 we've had no major upheaval—the first year in which the group hasn't either made a major acquisition, been involved in trying to integrate that acquisition, or moved its offices." The group had a record number of bestsellers, Ladybird had been brought "back to form as a branded reality " in children's books, and Dorling Kindersley had "bounced back into healthy profit; it's really satisfying that we got it to work so well, here and in the U.S." (where its book on the Rolling Stones has been a particularly strong seller). Forbes-Watson said that in fact the Penguin group did better as a whole last year than overall Pearson results would indicate.
But more change is still ahead. Penguin is putting the SAP system in place throughout its global operations during the next two years; all distribution and customer services are being combined with those of Pearson Education; and a giant new distribution center is being built in Leicestershire, to open next year, replacing the one at Harmondsworth, just outside London, that has served Penguin for generations. Meanwhile the company has used its splendid location to offer its 10th floor as a stunning venue for industry gatherings—"It's a great cultural center to operate from." (There has in fact been some jesting in the trade press about Penguin's lively internal social life in its new home.)
About the general book trade context, Forbes-Watson is somewhat less cheerful. "It's exhausting, and too confusing to call. That's what tries people. I think everyone, on both sides, is more or less dissatisfied. But everyone has learned to take each week as it comes. The publishing world is a stoical one, but to have to change one's patterns all the time is a disruption." One of the greatest enemies of trade publishing, he suggested, is its sheer complexity; Penguin, for instance, is more varied in its elements than any other British group, as he sees it, and running it successfully is like conducting an orchestra.
Big Christmas bestsellers had been Jamie Oliver's Kitchen, by one of those enormously popular British food writers (he's "The Naked Chef"); a memoir by ace footballer Roy Keane; Antony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin 1945 Nick Hornby's How To Be Good, and a book by star woman sailor Ellen Macarthur, Taking on the World—all of these had done much better even than expected. Clare Tomalyn's book on Samuel Pepys, winner of the Whitbread Prize, had been one of the most talked about books at the end of the year. The season had turned out well in the end, but an "unforgiving environment" had been accentuated by the lateness of the Christmas sales; a last-minute surge had saved the day, and "all our ships came home."
In other book news at Penguin, Forbes-Watson was delighted with DK's bringing aboard such stars as Peter Ackroyd to offer illustrated history; its luxurious upcoming Animal, with orders of more than a million copies, would be followed ultimately by Earth and Human over the next couple of years. An encyclopedia with electronic links was under construction. Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, a great favorite of Forbes-Watson's, continued to sell splendidly (and is a Book of the Year winner at the Nibbies), they were planning to do Dave Eggers's You Shall Know Our Velocity, Graham Swift had been brought back into the Penguin fold with his The Light of Day, and highly successful YA author Eoin Coffer was planning a third Artemis Fowl outing.
On the down side, returns arrives faster every year, so the bad news comes sooner after Christmas than it used to; and their high levels seem likely to continue.
This is being written just as the partygoers gather for Publishing News's "Nibbies"—which they have taken to calling "the oscars of the book trade"—presumably with a lowercase "o" to avoid charges of trademark infringement. This year, for the first time, the general public has been asked to join in with write-in votes for the categories they may be expected to know something about: book of the year, author of the year, biography of the year, illustrated book of the year, children's book of the year, audiobook of the year and newcomer of the year. All this was promoted with a splashy, full-color supplement distributed free last month in British bookstores. About such arcane matters as publisher of the year, editor of the year and distributor of the year, the public was expected to have nothing to say (but see p. S4 for these and other results).