How celebrities saved, then killed, the book trade

The London Book Fair and our Spring Books special inspired
<em>Nicholas Clee</em>, the former edit

The Galaxy British Book Awards dinner, which takes place at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane each spring, is not an event for the high-minded. Presented by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, it welcomes to the stage a series of celebrities not best known for their literary credentials, but who are of far greater appeal to the attending cameras than are the full-time authors, representatives of a drabber world. Jordan rubs shoulders with Ian McEwan, Geri Halliwell with Doris Lessing. It is good fun, usually. But this year the fun curdled somewhat.

We gave a big round of applause to Ant and Dec. They were working on a memoir. Here was Jo Brand. She has written a couple of novels, and this autumn will bring out her autobiography. So will Jack Dee. Next up was Dara O’Briain. He . . . but you follow the pattern. As book-writing comedian succeeded book-writing comedian, an uneasy sense pervaded the room that the industry’s reliance on these people to provide Christmas bounty was depressingly unoriginal, and quite likely to end in failure. Then we looked at Richard and Judy, doing their stuff for their tiny audience on the digital channel Watch. For how much longer would they continue to promote the sales of books in their millions?

The evening brings together the phenomena that have provided most of the bounty for the general book industry in the past few years. Ever since the supermarkets, attracted by the licence to discount following the abandonment of price maintenance on books in the 1990s, got heavily involved in bookselling, celebrity memoirs have been big business. Books by the likes of David Beckham, Peter Kay and Russell Brand have sold in their millions, and the top ten hardbacks of 2008 included the memoirs of Paul O’Grady, Dawn French, Julie Walters and Michael Park­inson. (The list also featured three TV chefs: Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson.)

Such has been the influence of Richard and Judy that their producer, Amanda Ross of Cactus TV, has been named the most powerful person in UK publishing. Kate Mosse, Victoria Hislop, Jodi Picoult and Jed Rubenfeld are among those who have come from nowhere to top the charts as a result of selection for the Richard and Judy Book Club, and even established authors, such as William Boyd, have enjoyed enhanced success thanks to the duo’s patronage. In 2008, R&J Book Club titles accounted for 8 per cent of all paperback fiction sales (as measured by Nielsen BookScan’s Top 5,000 chart).

However, there are signs that the heyday of the celebrity book, and of Richard and Judy, may be over – and if it is, where will the book trade be? Publishers are banking on the celebs again this autumn, but have serious worries that this genre will play less well in credit-crunch Britain. Richard and Judy selections seemed to be as prominent as ever in the charts this spring, but turned out to have sold, according to an analysis in the Bookseller magazine, about a third fewer copies than the spring 2008 selections. Booksellers continue to back the R&J “brand”, which they badly need to help them shift copies.

However, with the duo languishing on a little-watched digital channel, there must be doubts about whether the brand can retain its potency. Only the news, announced at the London Book Fair on 20 April, that Dan Brown had broken cover to complete The Lost Symbol, a sequel to his megaselling The Da Vinci Code, offers the certain promise of blockbusting sales.

Some people will welcome these developments. The industry has cultivated an unhealthy obsession with celebrities, they argue, to the detriment of proper books and authors. Richard and Judy may have created careers and selected some excellent books, but they have gained too much influence. Pity the new novelist who does not get their attention, who does not get selected for one of the big retailers’ three-for-two promotions, and who gets overlooked by the prize juries. That author will be lucky to sell 1,000 copies in hardback and 5,000 in paperback. You can’t pay a mortgage on those proceeds.

However, these trends are not the fault of the celebs, or of Richard and Judy. They are the consequence of the conglomeration in publishing and bookselling; of the proliferation of media; and of the undermining of a cultural consensus that could tolerate, without embarrassment, such concepts as literary excellence. The big publishers and booksellers have huge overheads to pay, and need books that will generate substantial revenues. They find it increasingly difficult to commission titles unless those titles come with a “story” – in particular, an author who is “promotable”, which is usually a publishing euphemism for “young and good-looking”. Talk to literary agents, and you hear many accounts of manuscripts, some by well-known names, that are finding no takers. Often, a rejection letter will arrive with a note of regret from an editor who, despite liking the work, could not get it past the sales people and executives at an acquisition meeting.

It is hard to get attention for titles that are worthy but may not be newsworthy. Newspapers’ literary pages are, in some cases, contracting; and are, in all cases, having to justify their existence to executives desperately trying to stem a leakage of readers. In the United States, very few newspaper literary sections remain; here in the UK several literary editors have recently lost their jobs. So authors are having to become entrepreneurs on behalf of their books, finding a way to get attention in the world of blogs, Twitter and YouTube. At a London Book Fair seminar, one publishing observer stated that to be successful today, authors had to be “ten times as lucky” as they did five years ago.

Then there is the recession. Random House has laid off 5 per cent of its staff, and HarperCollins is going through the same process.

Further redundancies are certain to follow and there are rumours that several booksellers, including some of the biggest, are now struggling­.

Given these factors, the mood at the London Book Fair was not as sombre as might have seemed appropriate. Everyone described the market as “tough”. But, especially for those big publishers lucky or skilful enough to have a few bestsellers, such as Stephenie Meyer’s novels or Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, trading was not too bad. A few per cent down, perhaps; but the London Book Fair delegates were glad to be in books rather than in estate agency or white goods.

However, bigger threats are looming: eBooks such as the Amazon Kindle (which is not available in the UK) and the Sony Reader (which is) have been overhyped in proportion to their minu­scule share of the book market. But they, and other digital methods of delivering text, are soon going to be very important. (In the academic and professional worlds, they already are.) It is quite hard to see how the current structure of the book industry will survive in the digital future.

There will be pressure on prices, decreasing revenues (in the United States, Amazon is holding the prices of its Kindle bestsellers at $9.99); piracy will become more widespread; and many more publishers and authors will find it easy and cheap to “publish” their texts. The business models of the giant multinationals will be put under a great deal of strain in these circumstances. A good many authors – even more than today – will struggle to earn a living, too. And the British Book Awards will be a lot lighter on celebrities.