Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The downside of bestsellers

[Posted Wednesday 21 March 2007]

Also in today's blog
The Grand Purge begins
More about Peter Owen

"A bestseller can swamp a small publisher – you take on more staff to supply the demand and when the sales stop you're stuck. Fred Warburg was sunk by a bestseller. Fourth Estate had to sell out after Longitude. You want a steady seller. One we've done terribly well with is The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, which didn't interest me, but it's now in its 12th printing. We've sold about 70,000 copies. It's green, you see. Perhaps that's the future."

Who am I quoting? Publisher Peter Owen who was 80 on February 24, the day an interview with him by Duncan Fallowell was published in the Books section of The Daily Telegraph.

Re-reading it last weekend led me to visit Peter Owen Publishers where I read –

"Peter Owen started his company, aged twenty-four, six years after the Second World War. He ran the business from home, with a typewriter as his only equipment. Soon, however, the company started to flourish, enabling him to employ some staff, his first editor was Muriel Spark, and he was able to bring some of the very best international literature to what was a very insular British market.

In the fifty years since then, although the industry has changed beyond recognition, Peter Owen Publishers continues the tradition of producing new and interesting writing. The company has published seven Nobel Prize winners and boasts a backlist that includes some of the most talented and important writers from all over the world."

Slightly Foxed, quarterly book review

It was a reference in the Peter Owen Publishers blog which led me to Slightly Foxed where I read –

"Do you carry elderly Penguins in your pockets? Do you panic if you find yourself on a journey with nothing to read? Do you linger in the book sections of charity shops?If so, we think you will enjoy Slightly Foxed, the lively quarterly book review for non-conformists – people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing.

Eclectic, elegant and entertaining, Slightly Foxed unearths books of lasting interest, old and new, all of them in print. Each issue contains 96 pages of personal recommendations from contributors who write with passion and wit. Slightly Foxed aims to strike a blow for lasting quality – for the small and individual against the corporate and the mass produced. Why not join us, and enjoy some excellent company too?"

A year's subscription costs £32.

The Grand Purge begins

For some time I have been aware that, should I suddenly fall off my perch, my nearest and dearest will have to grapple with the task of sorting out my two workrooms. Both of which are piled high with back issues of magazines, ring-binders, box files and plastic crates stuffed with large brown envelopes labelled Ballooning, Boats, British Horse Society, Chandeliers, Cheese, Chefs etc.

Whether other writers have these vast accumulations, I don't know. But my heirs and successors would, quite reasonably, be tempted to dump the whole lot at the nearest waste paper tip.

So A Grand Purge is in progress and one of my post-supper tasks for the next few months is to go through five magazines, tearing out pages which might be bloggable.

Last night I exceeded the target and dealt with ten back issues of The Bookseller which yielded 23 pages/articles to be kept.

For example, in 1999 The Bookseller was running an excellent feature called Encounter consisting of Q&A interviews with well-known book world people.
I've saved six of these, five written by Joel Rickett. [See photo] More about them later.

More about Peter Owen

By a happy chance, one of the articles I found, in The Bookseller's 11 May 2001, issue, was headed "Peter Owen - a family affair Peter Owen says his eponymous firm, celebrating its 50th anniversary, needs Arts Council funding." This was also written by Joel Rickett, now deputy editor of The Bookseller.

The piece is illustrated with a picture of Mr Owen and his daughter Antonia Owen, then and now editorial director.

In the interview, Joel Ricket quotes Peter Owen as saying, "When I started, practically all books got reviewed almost everywhere. Now I suspect half the literary editors don't even look at them."


"The support given to libraries in this country is scandalous". He yearns for the time, writes Rickett, when library sales guaranteed the viability of most print runs. "You can sell as few as 200 copies of a new novel now. You used to be able to sell 2,000 of almost anything…Fewer books are being bought, I think. It is very tough selling books, because there's a lot of competition, not just in books, but from films,videos, magazines, television and everything else."

At the end of the article, his daughter takes a more optimistic view, pledging to publish more translated fiction. "We can publish for niches and we have more flexibility over print runs than conglomerates."


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