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Publisher's view 4


The view from a publisher's desk No 4

This is the fourth in a series of articles by Tom Chalmers, MD of Legend Press, giving a publisher's view of the submission process and what a publisher is looking for.

The changing face of publishing

Publishing, happily bobbling along with late lunches and a certain detachment, has been forced to undergo rapid change over recent years – an inevitable process for the industry to survive the light-speed evolvement of modern society. Gone are the days of each house having their clearly defined list with their set range of outlets to sell into.

However, despite many protestations to the contrary, there is still a great deal to be positive about with more availability than ever before to a buying-hungry public. It is just vital that everyone moves on – something that quite a few find difficult with the halcyon days of old still holding steadfast in their memory and not wanting to be released.

One of the first shake-ups arrived with the so-called technology boom, though not quite hitting in the expected way. A number of publishers, taking some credit for being proactive, threw everything into the online revolution, only to see their hard-earned cash washed away. The actual book is one of society’s most durable products through a vast history, and long may that continue. However, the web and new technologies have already brought and will inevitably bring changes, and those publishers that thrive will be those that embrace and work with this evolution.

Inspired by the surge of technological advance, there has been a huge increase in products that compete for the public’s attention. Publishers have learnt that they can no longer rest on their laurels by selling to clearly defined ‘book buyers’. Tastes and trends have become much more transient with the consumer, besieged by choice, likely to buy a book one day followed by another form of entertainment the next, and vice-versa. The boundaries of all markets have become blurred  and finding your customer is no longer as straightforward as it used to be.

Partly as a result of this, the gloves came off for the booksellers. As well as a number of mergers, the chains realised that they could no longer just concentrate confidently on their specialist areas. With a public now wanting something immediately or they’ll get something else being sold next-door, bookshops looked to expand and offer everything under one roof. With the barriers down, competition became intense and the days of comfortably living alongside each other were over.

Another factor behind this has been the meteoric rise of book sales online and via the supermarkets. With the bookshops moving along steadily, the major supermarket chains saw an opportunity and jumped on it, backed by their huge resources and economies of scale.  Again, this reflects the ‘under one roof’ availability for the modern consumer – an availability that becomes perceived as a necessity. Then came the strategy that still sends a shiver down the spine of many in publishing and bookselling – heavy discounting.

With so much on offer, the modern consumer is a ruthless shopper, and, with their favourite novels at anywhere up to a third off the price online and in the supermarkets, it is no surprise that they left the bookshops in droves. With the Net Book Agreement having fallen in the UK, bookshops decided the best approach was to fight fire with fire and hence the vast tables of offers that greet any customer walking into a chain bookshop over the last few years. With ‘3 for 2s’ and other promotions off and running, independents, without the resources to afford the violent discount battle, began to struggle and fall by the wayside. It is only recently that they have realised the need to band together and hopefully this will start to pay dividends.

While I hope booksellers will look at other ways in addition to discounting to increase sales, the approach is understandable to be competitive in the modern consumer environment, though it has of course had an impact on what publishers now publish. With margins at an all-time low and not necessarily a clear market to sell to, the days are gone when houses would take a complete punt on a novel they liked from a first-time author. In fact, most are cutting their lists with a new focus on quality over quantity – and also relying on the ‘heavyweight’ names.

In addition, writers shouldn’t be fooled by the Harry Potter inspired surge in the children’s market. Many budding authors are now sending in work aimed at the sector in the mistaken belief that publishers are desperate to publish as much children’s fiction as possible. In fact, while of course many envious houses would love to discover the next HP phenomenon, the market is nearing saturation and it is one of the most competitive to get published in.

However, aspiring writers shouldn’t be downbeat, just aware. Publishers are having to be innovative (note the latest ‘blog to book’ trend – although there are mixed views on how successful it will be) and they are all looking to get one step ahead with a new idea. The key is that in the modern, competitive cross-product, market, they need to have an angle and to know who will be picking the book up in great numbers.

Writers shouldn’t be deluded into thinking they can just write a good thriller, send it around and they will get an offer to get it published over lunch with an editor. Without having to provide a marketing report, writers should be aware of how their novel can be promoted to get attention and realistically who will buy it, read it and rave about it. A couple of hundred aren’t enough in the mass market – thousands are going to have pick it up. Does it offer anything new and, if so, what? Is it linked to any current trend or issue? Point the publisher/agent in the right direction to get their attention. Now more than ever they are looking for a new hit or idea, but they are not going to take a risk without a very good reason for doing so.

No 1 What a publisher wants from submissions

No 2 Judging a book by its covering letter and synopsis

No 3 Making the submission

Tom Chalmers is the Managing Director of Legend Press,one of the five companies in Legend Times Ltd, which also includes New Generation Publishing.