Monday, 17 August 2009

How Writers Can Save Publishing, One Book At A Time

When I visited Aberystwyth a couple of weeks ago, I did my usual thing: I left my husband on the beach to supervise our children, and I went for a walk around the town.

I've known Aberystwyth all my life: I have a lot of family there, and it's familiar to me in an infrequent, surreal way. I know the layout of its streets, but not the names of them; I know the history of the town as it appears in my family's folklore, which often juxtaposes oddly with the more widely-accepted versions; and I know a series of landmarks through the town which help me to knit together my own mental street-map, and which provide a framework for all those inherited memories I have of the place.

This time, though, one of those landmarks had gone. Galloway's, the independent bookshop on Pier Street, has closed. The space it left behind is now filled with racks of tracksuits and boxes of cheap trainers. There are other bookshops, of course (and the list you'll find in this link still includes Galloway's even though it's gone, which pleases me): there is a branch of Waterstone's on the main shopping street and a couple of hundred yards down from it the small but brilliantly-stocked Siop-y-Pethe, both of which are wonderful in their own ways, and there are a few others too: but Galloway's, with its top floor full of fiction, its racks of small-press books, its spooky, echoing basement full of textbooks and odd non-fiction: Galloway's, which I've never once left without a satisfyingly fat bundle of books—Galloway's is gone. Because, as several people told me sadly, it just wasn't making enough money to remain in business.

I stood outside the space-which-once-was-Galloway's and stared in at the bright white trainers and the young men fighting to get themselves the right sizes, the best designers. It was never so busy when it was full of books. I found myself thinking of the wonderful literary magazine Cadenza, which came to an end this year not because of a lack of quality or reputation, but because it didn't sell enough copies to pay for its own printing bill; and of Salt Publishing, which earlier this year asked us to buy just one book in order to keep it in business (which appears to have worked, I'm pleased to say).

So here is my point. It is difficult to get published: this we know. But imagine how much more difficult it would be if the market were halved. Fewer publishers in business translates directly into fewer publishing slots; and as bookshops close, books and literary magazines have fewer opportunities to get into readers hands, which reduces book sales even further.

Over the last year I've read a lot of blog posts which have bemoaned the perilous state of publishing today: the suggested solutions to publishing’s financial crisis have ranged from sacking all editors (and in so doing prevent them rejecting the Brave New Literary Voice Which Could Alone Save Publishing (which is usually, coincidentally, the voice of the person writing the blog post in question) to cutting literary agents out of publishing's food-chain (because in their role of literary gatekeeper—how I hate that phrase—they’ve rejected the Brave New Literary Voice Which Could Alone Save Publishing, and we know who that is, don’t we?). But very few of them have pointed out that writers could do a lot to help keep all these publishers and booksellers in business until business picks up.

Every time you submit your work anywhere, support your submission by buying a copy of the magazine that you’re submitting to, or a book from the publisher you’d like to publish you. If you’re writing a novel and are nowhere near ready to submit then think about who you would like to publish you once you’re ready to go and buy something from them.

Buy just one more book; subscribe to just one literary magazine; use your local bookshop if you can; and then keep going. Every single copy helps: and there’s no need to stop at just one. If you can afford to, buy an extra book or literary magazine every month or every week; if you can’t afford to then order books at your local library and read them all for free—the library pays for the books it lends out, and every little helps. Because every time a publisher ceases trading or a bookshop closes its doors, it becomes just a little bit harder for us to get published. And if we writers haven’t supported the independent publishers, the small imprints, the many tiny but wonderful literary and genre magazines which put out fabulous work, then we can’t complain when they close, and another opportunity is lost to us forever.

(The two stunning covers I've used to illustrate this piece belong to books translated by John K Bollard with photographs by Anthony Griffiths: The Mabinogi, and Companion Tales to the Mabinogi. They're both published by Gomer, and I bought them from Siop-y-Pethe. If you're interested in the Mabinogion, or in Welsh/Celtic literature, culture or countryside, buy them both: they are the most beautiful books I've seen in a good long while.)


Dan Holloway said...

I will be back to comment in depth, but just wanted to exclaim in horror. I've known Aber for many many years and it's been a regular haunt (Central Fish Bar does the best Fish [or faggot] and chips in the UK) for about half my life. I can't believe Galloway's is gone!

Dan Holloway said...

"Every time you submit your work anywhere, support your submission by buying a copy of the magazine that you’re submitting to, or a book from the publisher you’d like to publish you"

Er, do people not do that as a matter of course? I guess not.

I suppose I am one of the naysayers, because I am always exhorting the publishing industry to look at itself and adapt before it's too late. But my motivation has never been that I think it needs to avoid missing the OneTrue Voice that will save the industry. My motivation is simply that the business of culture is changing, and publishing MUST change. I don't know the answers, but I really want it to succeed.

Not necessarily for me and my writing, and I think that's where "One New Voice" writers are really disngenuous. I am part of the problem (insofar as my novels go). I write uncommercial (for a publisher, anyway) literary fiction, and I will continue to do so. Any publisher who takes me on will have to take on my prose as it stands. And if they do that they will lose money. So I would never exhort publishers to take on writers like me. It's up to "me and my sort" to build a thriving independent scene outside the mainstream rather than sitting on our whingeing bottoms moaning at publishers.

I care about books. Truly, madly, deeply. BUT and it's a big but (too much sitting on it) I care about stories more. Books are a means (a historically very recent means) of preserving stories, the living, breathing marvellous things that breathe life from one human being to another. They are beautiful things. Exquisite even. I have been known to spend whole evenings staring at and fondling some because they're so beautiful. But they are still things, and it's the stories they contain that REALLY matter, in a way that transcends materiality.It's those we need to preserve. And yes, publishers play a huge part, and we as writers should support them to the hilt. But we should also stop being leeches who expect the industry to preserve our stories for us.

none said...

If just ten per cent of the writers who submit to GUD bought a copy, we'd have far fewer worries about our future.

Dan Holloway said...

Buffy, it's no wonder the quality of submission is so poor if people who submit don't even buy a copy of the magazine they're submitting to. Even if they had no altruistic concerns, shouldn't they do all the research they can to better their submission and make sure it fits your mag?

Jane Smith said...

Dan, yes: sad, I know, but Galloway's is no more. I still feel bereft by its passing. (And have you read "Real Aberystyth" by Niall Griffiths? Because it's great, especially if you know the town.)

As for writers buying copies of magazines before they submit to them--if only they did. Few bother, and that lies at the root of the failure of so many of our literary publishing gems.

And I'm with you as far as the idea goes that publishing needs to adapt: the thing is, it always has. It's a very different business now than it was 25 years or so ago when I first got involved with it: it's changed hugely. Just think: the end of the net book agreement, the rise of the big chain bookshop, the celebrity book, Amazon, digital technology, e-books... I could go on. Publishing isn't a static business; yes, it does take time to change but so do other businesses. It moves all the time.

(Dan, I am planning another Special Blogging Day, which I hope many people will join in with, which I think will be very close to your heart. I've got to wait a couple of weeks yet but am rubbing my hands together with joy thinking of how you're going to react to it. Ha!)

Dan Holloway said...

Now that sounds exciting!

I haven't read the book you mentioned, but I do remember seeing one called The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth in Galloway's that always tickled my fancy.

You're right about the publishing industry having changed. I think we come at the issue form different angles but share an annoyance with witers who want the publishing industry to change to suit THEM rather than to find its own place in the new landscape

Diana said...

My submissions inbox is overflowing. I can barely keep up. My orders inbox is relatively empty. I'm just starting out, so some of that is to be expected.

If the contributors got just one friend or relative to buy a copy of Emerald Tales, it would help me out a lot. And if everyone who submitted bought a copy, then I'd be able to start on my plans to expand my line of publications. Right now, that's on hold while I work on ways to get more customers.

Unknown said...

I was just thinking that last night. A independent book store just closed in Seattle. I started thinking, "I just need to buy books whether I have time to read them or not. And not just from major publishing houses."
I need to support my own industry FCOL.

Imogen said...

This reminds me a bit of a discussion (I think on this blog, though I may be getting confused) a few months ago about the strange fact that many would-be writers claim not to have the time to read, or even say they do not like reading. I was stunned by that at the time (and indeed I still am now). How can anyone who likes stories and books, and who writes or wants to write, not read? But not buying books would follow on from that, as sure as the river mouth follows the meandering lower course...
I've never been to Aberystwyth but am still sadly getting over the demise of the wonderful Albion Books, of Canterbury and Broadstairs, who closed both branches some three or four years ago. Leaving Canterbury with a smug Waterstones, and Broadstairs with NOWT.
On a Kew salary I have to ration entry into book shops, but every time i go in one I am bound to come out with something, so I hope it evens out in the end...

Jane Smith said...

My argument can be extended to encompass self-published books: if every self-published author bought a selection of titles by other self-published writers, then sales of such works would shoot through the roof. I know that some of them do: but I bet that the majority don't, and I feel I'm on pretty safe ground here simply because of the horribly low numbers that self-published books sell.

I'm going to have a think about what I can do with this blog to help. It does get a few readers each month (about 10,000 so far this month), and if just five per cent of them bought an extra book as a result that would be 500 extra books sold, Which is pretty good.

Tara McClendon said...

How do you think buying used books falls into this? I try to always buy books new, but I know many people who only buy used? Do you think it plays into this equation at all? Or should I save my money and go with the trend?

Jane Smith said...

Dan, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth" is by Matthew (I think) Pryce, and is part of a series of really funny books. I love them: they're good if you don't have an Aber connection but if you know the place, they're brilliant.

"You're right about the publishing industry having changed. I think we come at the issue form different angles but share an annoyance with witers who want the publishing industry to change to suit THEM rather than to find its own place in the new landscape."

Yes. Absolutely. Thank you for that.

Derek said...

I don't think it's that bad.

It's true that reading is in long-term decline as a recreational activity (at least it is in the U.S.).

But a lot of the trade that used to go to bookstores has just switched to the internet. It hasn't disappeared altogether.

And Amazon has said there's some evidence that Kindle owners are actually buying more ebooks than they ever did pbooks before they owned the device.

As for writers trying to artificially support publishers ... I can't see that amounting to very much business. Publishers succeed when they issue titles people want to buy -- not when they appeal to would-be writers to feel sorry for them.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

It is so sad to hear that about a well-loved indie bookshop.
I visited the iconic 'City Lights Bookshop' in San Francisco earlier this year. (No, I dont usually travel to such exotic places, I was there on a v special trip) - and went uptairs to the poetry section. Most of the top floor. With a rocking chair, and a table for your flask of coffee, and an invitation on a poster to sit down and read.

The books were so well thumbed it was like buying second hand, but I did anyway.

I agree with all that's said. We should all research the mags we sub to before sending off work. But we don't. I subbed to GUD without buying a copy, to my shame... because I already knew it had a great reputation, and knew the piece I sent was potentially a 'fit'.

But leaving GUD out of it for a sec ... and playing devil's advocate here - to what extent do we think that the mags should be kept afloat by writers? Isnt that dangerous?

Does it not mean in the end that some mags will be out there full of writing that no readers (apart from writers hoping to be published therein) want to read?

And if that is the case, if we write to be read, not just for cash, do we want to be read by readers for the love of reading - or by other writers just measuring their work against ours?

So many questions, so little time...


Tamara Hart Heiner said...

this makes me so sad. I'm going book shopping on thursday.

catdownunder said...

Our house overflows with books. Our (many) bookshelves are double (and even triple) stacked - and yes, we have read them. I am still terrified that our local indie bookshop will close through lack of patronage. I wish I had more money. I would buy more books.

none said...

I think the small mags mostly are supported by writers. It's not ideal, but it's better than no mags at all.

As I understand it, male writers generally take a scattershot approach and don't bother assessing whether their submission 'fits' the magazine. Female writers try to 'fit'. Apparently, one result of this is that males sell more stories than females.

As the person who has to read the scattershots, I did not say that!

Dan Holloway said...

Hmm, so those Facebook quizzes that tell me my brain is 80% female aren't lying. Sadly this is a recurrent statistic (the scattershot male - hmm - sounds like bathroom habits - not my 80% female brain though that probably is too, which is why I can't write male protags for my books for toffee). There is a real bias in favour of men at work when it comes to "merit awards", because in addition to being nominated by your boss you can put yourself forward (how RUDE would that be!!) and it seems as though male staff tend to "hit and hope" whereas women will be reticent about putting themselves forward. Or that, at least, is the most common explanation given for the figures.

Rachel Green said...

I know Aber well, and I shall miss Galloways.

none said...

Now, now, Imogen, Canterbury has TWO smug Waterstones (since Ottakers got eaten alive) whereas Broadstairs has Teh Huge Pile Of Secondhand Books at the surviving Albion.


Ms Baroque said...

Very nice post, Jane; sorry to come in on it a little late! Galloways sounds like a place we used to go when I was a kid, a wonderful, cavernous, absolutely packed-to-bursting toy-&-bookshop called Creative Playtime, which was run by this old man...

A note to Derek. It's true the internet has soaked up a lot of the book trade. But it isn't the same as indie booksellers on the high streets. Obviously the web - not just Amazon - is a great boon for people looking for rare or specialist titles - but for the mass of casual readers who want to browse, it means they see their local Waterstones, with its narrow promotions of 3-for-2 on selected titles, and think that's just what books are.

Also, as to Salt's Just One Book campaign. Salt DOES publish books people want to read! The overheads in publishing are high, the margins are low, and Salt is an innovative, vibrant and prolific publisher, specialising in the hard-to-sell genres of poetry and short stories. It is widely acknowledged by people in the business that Salt has hugely changed the UK landscape in a short time. They also publish in the USA. And Salt titles are increasingly cropping up in awards lists.

I'm pleased to say that when this year's Forward Prize anthology comes out in two weeks, there will be seven Salt poets in the Highly Commended section - including me. Salt also, as in previous years, has a shortlisted title, so fingers crossed!

My Just One Book this month was Karen Annesen's debut collection, How to Fall.

Speaking of bookstores closing, here in London everyone was gutted by the loss of the big Borders in Oxford Street - if only for their magazine section. Lots of poetry and literary magazines are stocked only in Borders, so it is a blow.