The Market

I don’t like the market.

I don’t even like going into bookshops any more. There was a time when I couldn’t pass a bookshop without stopping to look in the window. Now, when I pass Waterstones, I pass by on the other side.

The market is a mass market. In some respects it’s been that way for a long time.

The mass market began in the later part of the nineteenth century when W. H. Smith started selling cheap paperbacks on railway stations. It was socially acceptable for respectable middle-class people to read popular fiction while they were travelling. Publishers started putting coloured pictures on the covers and separate genre started to develop.

By ‘market’ I mean the market for what are known as ‘general trade’ books: fiction and ‘general non-fiction’. Technical and professional books are different, and educational books – which still sell, although it’s a declining market – are different again.

I’m not clear when the mass market became dominant. In the first half of the twentieth century there was a minority readership. I think the minority readership was problematic. It was largely a market for modernism, which is elitist. I have a hunch it was largely made up of bohemians, who were also in some ways elitist. But there was a minority market. It supported a different kind of writing.

By the fifties the bohemians were leaving Fitzrovia in droves. They were moving into the television studios and the advertising agencies. They were getting jobs in the new universities. But something persisted.

In the fifties and sixties you could still publish fiction that was different. Publishers would consider novels that were socially and politically quite radical, or aesthetically ambitious. They don’t do that any more.

By the eighties the market was saturated. There were no new customers and no room for expansion. There was competition for market share. The process of consolidation started: the corporate takeovers.

In a saturated market the dominant corporations will eventually withdraw from the margin. They will leave the unprofitable business to new entrants.

In Britain the unprofitable business that new small firms take up is very often the production of the sort of novel that gets nominated for prizes. The sophisticated young people who write about books for the Guardian are very impressed by this. I am not. I think that small publishers are even more pretentious than the corporate firms.

By the 1980s books were sold in bulk. General trade books were sold just like any other commodity. It was a mass market. The competition was intense.

The publishing industry releases an extraordinary number of new titles. It has been said it releases more new product lines than any other industry. That may be true. Only one book in five makes a profit. It is a strange way of doing business.

The pressure to drive down costs and deliver profit is also intense. Publishing professionals, as they are known, are being made redundant. They are hiring out to self-publishers as freelancers. Writers’ incomes are falling. They are getting sacked in droves.

The marketing is intense. Comparison book, comparison author, endorsements, reviews, giveaways, appearances, publicity. And above all, the cover.

The cover is the essence of the packaging. Books are a consumer product, like any other.

Packaging tempts. Packaging has allure. Packaging sells.

I went to a self-publishers’ meeting in the cafe in Waterstone’s once. Waterstone’s was enough in itself to put me off before the meeting started.

This was in the Picadilly branch. It is apparently the biggest bookshop in Europe. That is apparently a claim to distinction.

They had the floor space to do what they wanted. The books in their glossy, brightly-coloured covers were piled up high on the tables like make-up boxes.

The offer is exactly the same. Give us the money, and we will give you a feeling. Content is irrelevant. It’s about a mood.

There is no room in this market for writing of integrity. It is not hopeless. There are discriminating readers. They don’t buy in the mass market. They buy from the on line second hand and discount dealers who use the Amazon network but are not part of it.

It is possible to imagine writers with integrity reaching those discriminating readers. But I don’t know how it would be done.

Photo credit: Antonio Tajuelo via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

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