Sunday, 14 June 2009

The book corner

What I like about the job I'm doing currently is that I see book publishers' schedules for the next six months, ie, what books are coming out. As I've been doing this work for 10 years I have witnessed many developments.

When I first started, I thought book publishing was the highest pinnacle of human intellectual achievement, but I realise now that it is a complete racket, like most other commercial ventures! A publisher can tell you what will be a bestseller before it's even published, based on the fact that they are going to spend a lot of their marketing money on it. Books that buck this trend are called 'word-of-mouth bestsellers', ie, they're actually some good, and people tell their friends about them.

If someone hits on a new format that sells well, say Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, every other big publisher will rush into print a number of similar books, and thus a genre is born: chick lit. High-brow novels are just another genre: 'literary fiction', which has its own target market and promotion methods.

There has been great consolidation among publishing houses. There are now fewer and they are bigger. Independent bookselling has been squeezed by the growth of big chains such as Borders and now supermarkets. These big sellers are also big buyers and they can dictate the shape of the industry, driving down prices, and making the market less diverse: there are more copies of books sold now, but fewer actual titles published. Amazon has finally become a real player, as it was long predicted they would. Although, as you might have noticed, they don't just bother with books now.

Much printing has moved to China, where it's cheaper. Technological advances have brought many new and fancy formats, and lots of books are bundled in with CDs/DVDs/novelty gifts, etc. In some cases, it is hard to tell whether they still qualify as a book.

I won't go into the developments in all the different genres that I have seen, but just concentrate on a few. I have developed a hatred of crime fiction and the ways of promoting it, which puts me at odds with most of my countrymen and women, I realise, who lap the stuff up. Man is wolf to man... and don't we love to read about it!

The most infuriating and cynical new genre is books about small things you can do to save the planet, printed on paper from trees, that will never get read and usually don't deserve to be. If you really want to save the planet, join the Climate Camp or plant a tree!

Humour books seldom are funny, but one or two can surprise me with their brilliance. I'm not sure what I make of the trend to swearing in book titles, but I think at least it is honest. My colleagues and I, rather quaintly, still debate whether to put the * in titles like The Way of F**k it: The Modern Way to Transform Your Life (which is a so-called self-help title, by the way).

Mind, body and spirit titles ruled for years, yielding much entertainment, but they seem to be in decline: there are, after all, only so many methods of ancient divination you can tap before you have to accept that nothing will be so useful in helping you to know your own future as actually getting off your backside to shape it. Still, I miss the celtic tree symbols (though not the sodding angels - I never got angels).

Business titles have not taken a knock in the downturn. In the good times the titles were all about 'gurus' and their secrets for making a mint, in the crisis the titles are all about what has gone wrong... it's all very well being wise after the event! Computing used to be a tiny genre, and is now massive; graphic novels are burgeoning. Many books 'tie in' to films and television programmes. There is a newish sub-genre of biography titles called 'misery memoirs', based on a good, original title, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Some of the titles that have followed are, in my view, seriously tasteless. The Other Side of the Wall: How An Abused Little Girl Struggled to Make Her Screams Heard Above the Sound of The Neighbour's Television-Set As They Watched a Popular 1970s Television Crime Drama (I made that one up, but there are titles just like this).

When I do this work, I start inventing my own formats and titles, some cleverer and funnier than others, which will, thankfully, never see the light of day, but it keeps my brain working, sort of.

Here are some titles that I have come up with during my current spell of work:
No, I Don't Have Tourette's, I'm Just F**king P*ssed-Off (a humour title, obviously)

Queer Stories for Children (in the under 5s fiction category, a series to make erstwhile critics of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin see red)

Should I Lie About My Age to Get Laid? (one for the increasing ranks of the menopausal - self-help)
If all of these seem a bit rude, that just reflects what I am seeing in the publishers' lists - a childish desire to shock, perhaps, filtering through to publishing from television and other culture? In some cases, yes, but the queer stories, no: after weeks of looking at princess titles for girls and football stories for boys, that really does appeal to me. When you look at publishers' lists, it is as though women's lib (remember that phrase?) had never happened!

1 comment:

Karl-Marx-Stra├če said...

As I do a similar job, I think you should claim those titles as your own and get to work to write next year's Christmas surprise successes...

And, when you write....
A publisher can tell you what will be a bestseller before it's even published, based on the fact that they are going to spend a lot of their marketing money on it.
....I think it's only fair to point out that publishers amazingly often get it badly wrong. No amount of marketing money or big name authors (or bribing of individual booksellers or chain store buyers with free copies, t-shirts, invites to presentations, expenses-paid trips etc.) can secure the success of some titles.