The Power to Sell Books
Scottish writing is in great shape. Scottish publishing is not, and nobody is doing anything about it. Could it be because we have no power?
By power here, I mean the ability of a publisher to promote books to generate enough sales to keep going. The general ball park figure for a publisher ‘keeping going’ would be anywhere between their selling 2,000 and 10,000 copies of a book.
For that to work, a few different people need to pull some weight. Publishers need to produce good, if not great books and that’s already happening in Scotland. We’d also need lots of authors, and Scotland is spoiled for those more than anywhere else I can think of. But without a healthy publishing industry, these writers will always be published elsewhere.
That’s where the ‘promote books’ bit comes in. For a long time there has not been any other model for selling 10,000 books other than the print media writing about it. There are platforms such as festivals where books are promoted, but without the arbitration, sponsorship and direction of the press, festivals are not going to help. You may think Scottish newspapers and broadcast media are doing a grand job because they are promoting Scottish writers, but what we fail to notice is that they do not promote Scottish publishing. In fact I will argue there is a prejudice against Scottish publishing.
I like the image of everyone pulling their weight. The state has a part to play too, and if the Parliament can encourage one kind of growth by giving Amazon £2.5million of our Scots pounds, I can only ask why the Parly can’t encourage growth in the publishing business the same way. Perhaps the Parliamentarians haven’t noticed how epic Scottish publishing is? Publishers don’t even need that much money — honest! — but if publishing is to be valued as a prime Scottish industry then perhaps it should be treated as such.
Not wishing to exclude the rest of Scotland, I’d like to talk about publishing as industry in Edinburgh.
On greeting The Marquis Tseng and his delegation from China on their visit to Edinburgh in 1886, Lord Provost Clark commented to the former Chinese ambassador that ‘Edinburgh had not ever much in the way of manufacture.’ I wonder if he was correct, and what if any manufacture could the city be known for? I wonder if after the financial services and tourism industries have been considered, isn’t publishing and its attendant trades something that Edinburgh has going for it in terms of manufacture?
I think Edinburgh still aspires to this, given its UNESCO City of Literature status, the Scottish Book Trust, Poetry Library, and the many whatnots of literary tourism there are there. There is a huge concentration of publishers, editors and writers in Edinburgh, and so there are many reasons Edinburgh presents itself as a literary city. But that is a literary city yes —and not a centre of publishing. I’d argue that Edinburgh and Scotland can easily be a centre of publishing, and that Scottish publishing can compete properly in the world, if it’s properly supported, and also taken seriously by the press.
Because I am published in Scotland and because I admire Scottish publishers I’ve never been able to stop myself from counting how many of these publishers are honoured in our media — but it’s always been next to nil. I’ve taken a recent consecutive run of The Scotsman and broken down its book coverage because I thought that might be a good way to show you what I mean. I hope the table is self-explanatory.
By Books Covered I am including the various advertorial and promotion methods open to books editors, including review, interview and in the case of The Scotsman, the ‘Poem of the Week.’ I’ve listed the names of Scottish publishers covered so that you can make your own mind up about this token system:
|Issue of The Scotsman||Books Covered||Scottish Books||Publisher Covered|
|4 May 2013||13||1||Freight|
|20 April 2013||13||1||New Voices Press|
|27 April 2013||15||1||Argyll Publishing|
|18 May 2013||15||2||HappenstanceCanongate|
|25 May 2013||13||1||Dundee University Press|
|1 June 2013||13||1||Polygon|
|8 June 2013||13||1||Canongate|
|15 June 2013||14||1||Humming Earth|
|22 June 2013||7||0|
|6 July 2013||24||3||Sandstone PressItchy Coo
Black and White
|13 July 2013||9||1||Canongate|
|20 July 2013||9||1||Edinburgh University Press|
|27 July 2013||8||1||Birlinn|
|3 Aug 2013||9||2||Stewed RhubarbCanongate|
So that’s just a few weeks’ worth of coverage counted in one of our papers, which doesn’t amount to anything other than a little anecdotal evidence. But I’m pretty sure the picture is fair and that this ratio has been set at this level for decades. Last Christmas, Radio Scotland’s Book Café pulled the same stunt. Scottish publishers would have valued any sales boost at all, but the show chose to spend up of ten minutes promoting a new Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. If I brought in Noam Chomsky here, he would remind me that this is perfectly in character with the work of corporate media, which exists to create and sell audiences. It’s a vicious circle, because there’s no point in traditional media covering anything as insignificant as Scottish publishing, because no audience for it has been created in the first place.
From the table then you can quickly see the ballpark figure is running at 10% coverage. Twenty years ago my own publisher lobbied to have more Scottish books featured at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which had in his calculating, less than 4% of its featured titles as Scottish. The Edinburgh Book Festival was not impressed with this provincial haranguing however, and changed its name to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, properly swerving the issue. I don’t know how they are doing these days — I may well have to check — but my point here is that this has been this way for a long time.
And part of me thinks 17 out of 175 looks all right — about 10% as perhaps planned. In terms of UK sales Scottish publishers probably don’t account for that much, so I don’t know — but maybe this is good? The Scotsman is certainly consistent, representing at least one Scottish press each week, and better still, other than the three Canongates in this slice, everybody gets at least one shot. With at least 52 publishers in Scotland that means everybody is getting their fair call — which is one plug a year? I don’t know. Nowhere in The Scotsman’s mission statement does it say that the paper has any obligation to cover Scottish books, but the paper has to exist for some reason — and yet I would still like to see the figure 2 or 3 times what it is. This is because if Scottish publishing was validated in the eyes of a national media, then an audience for it would certainly arise.
My opinion is that because the newspapers and broadcast media are tied to audience figures, they can’t afford to mess with non-profitable sectors like Scottish book publishing. It’s also possible that our newspaper books editors don’t consider Scottish publishing of good enough quality. I see public money spent on writers and then there’s the example of Amazon, above — but not only do the writers need support less than publishers, they are in their most successful incarnations published in England. Muh! This is in fact the only way Scottish writers can get their books ‘out there’.
I would argue that publishing is something that we can be proud of and would love to see some real publishing power back in this country. It might even make The Scotsman look good too. The latest Julian Barnes book would make a great example. Already reviewed by The Spectator, The Times, the Guardian, The independent, The Telegraph, The LRB and numerous, numerous other outlets, why would this title need a further review from The Scotsman? Please provide your own answer!
Here is mine: There are nearly 70 million people in Britain and only two dozen of them are books editors. All these editors know each other and must keep up their consensus, or else ALL may be out of a job. Publishing is an extremely precarious industry and it relies on this consensus — but I’d ask people to look at their national media and see for themselves what the editors are promoting. At present it stands at one token Scottish title out of every dozen.
While I’m asking the press to do more to strengthen publishing, this is only a part of the battle. After all, the traditional media has lost much of its value —a publisher may still covet a book review in a newspaper or an appearance on The Culture Studio —but the importance of these is diminishing with newspaper staffs decimated by layoffs and consumers turning to alternative news sources.
At the moment then, the only way to know that Scottish publishing even exists, is to look at the blogs — Books from Scotland is a good one to start with, although there are plenty others out there who care enough to write about Scottish books. For the meantime, and if The Scotsman wished to revive its readership, the message to the paper is You Could Do Better.
You have it in your power to help.
Read more On The Books Pages (Link = http://peterburnett.info/the-books-pages )
My plug: http://www.fledglingpress.co.uk/store/products/the-studio-game/