Wednesday 10 December 2008

Nunc est bloggandum!

So here’s my first post – from New York City, where I arrived last Thursday under the threat of snow and Labrador temperatures. After spending Friday and Saturday with friends in New Jersey, I moved into a lovely hotel off Fifth Avenue, on 32nd Street. For the past two days, I have been doing the rounds and meeting publishers and agents, and can report that the general consensus is that the US publishing industry has officially entered a period of unprecedented crisis and uncertainty. The recent news of Houghton Mifflin’s problems and the large cracks suddenly showing in Random House’s granite temple on Broadway – with Doubleday to be subsumed into the remaining imprints – have sent powerful shockwaves all over Manhattan, and beyond.

Although during my meetings I tried to talk about books, my interlocutors invariably turned to the subject of recession – and asked whether in my view the same will happen in UK. My answer to them was – yes, the same will happen in UK too, and it may be even worse than in the US.

The way I look at it – and this may be a gross generalization or misinterpretation – is that most problems stem from the rotten methods and lack of principles of the corporate world. It’s known to everybody that the CEOs and CFOs of most big and medium-sized corporations receive huge salaries and obscene perks. What is less known is that they tend to be old pals coming from a similar background (possibly the same schools) and who have rubbed each other’s shoulders for a very long time. In order to justify their astronomical salaries – and those of their cronies – they’ll do anything to push sales through the roof during the period they are in charge. They’ll show great results to their shareholders, and substantial profits, and will go on and on with their lavish and wasteful ways, trying to achieve unrealistic growth rates.

The same applies to publishing. Most CEOs, publishers and CFOs have a similar pedigree. And in publishing it’s extremely easy to fiddle with numbers: sales can be overstated in many ways, you can give your stock an exaggerated value, allocate royalty payments to the previous or following period, and other thousand little tricks to make the company’s books look healthier than they really are. This is fine until there is cash washing through the company: the minute cash stops, the cracks begin to appear – and no fiddling can help: people have to go, companies have to fold.

Why is it that if you ask any impartial observer, he’ll tell you that it’s almost impossible to make money in publishing, and that most publishing houses – small, medium and big – are losing money all the time? People seem to be aware that this is happening – that publishing is a genteel way of losing a lot of money. Yet nobody, inside the ivory towers of publishing, is willing to admit this, and everybody keeps looking for the next Harry Potter, the next Da Vinci Code, the next big thing. They might as well play the National Lottery.

Most of the people I talked to – and I saw around twenty publishers and agents – claim that this is all for the good: that we are going to learn from our mistakes and be cured from our excesses. Well, I have my doubts – and I’ll be curious to follow the denouement of the current crisis when it hits the white cliffs of Dover at full force after Christmas. Goodnight for now. AG.

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