Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A pinch of literary salt

I am, by and large, a market kind of guy. Although I don't have any illusions about the imaginary benefits of economics (see the wonderful Economyths), and don't believe that markets always optimize, when we're dealing with commercial trade, I think it's usually best to leave things to the market, because interfering simply props up products that aren't wanted or companies that are bad at doing their job.

However, there are lots of caveats to this. It can be beneficial, for instance, to subsidize a product that in the long term will be hugely beneficial but initially is restrictively expensive. Another situation where I think it's appropriate to distort the market is where there's a good company with good products, but they are struggling to get the exposure they need. This happens all too often in publishing. You can get a great book that never achieves visibility. Or a publishing company with an excellent track record that is too small to buy the attention of the bookstores.

One such company is Salt Publishing. They've produced a string of excellent literary novels and are even brave enough to publish poetry. But they are finding things tough at the moment, and are on the edge of going bust.

In response, the Salt authors and management have started a 'just one book' campaign. The simple message is if enough people buy just one Salt book, the company can be saved to carry on publishing its excellent works. So with some hesitation, I've joined the queue, and purchased a book. (In my case it's Elizabeth Baines' Too Many Magpies (I'm fascinated by magpies, and anyway I can't resist a come-on that says 'Can we believe in magic and spells? Can we put our faith in science?') which I am now awaiting with interest to add to the holiday reading pile.

This isn't a decision I've come to lightly. Salt first tried this campaign last year and got enough sales boost to survive 12 months, but are now in real danger again. I didn't take part the first time because I'm really dubious about much of the subsidised arts. I think, on the whole, that the arts ought to be able to stand on their own feet. (I don't include museums and galleries, which I'd class as education rather than art.) If I had Dave and Nick's budget axe in my hands, I'm afraid subsidies for the likes of the Royal Opera House would be among my first targets.

In principle I have sympathy for the argument that we ought to be subsidising struggling young artists who need some source of income before they sell things - but I don't see why that subsidy shouldn't come direct from people like Damien Hirst, and from the auction houses, rather than the rest of us - a sort of artists' graduate tax.

But I've come to realize that what Salt is doing isn't a subsidy. After all I'm buying an excellent book. It's more a viral marketing campaign, and I wish Salt all the best with it.

So don't just nod wisely and move on. Nip over to Salt's website (you might as well give them all the dosh, rather than sending a slice to Amazon) and buy a book now. Just one book. You never know, you may even enjoy it.

PS my copy of Too Many Magpies has arrived with a surprise bonus. It seems that if you buy direct from Salt by 31 August you get an entry in their raffle - see their blog for details.

14 comments:

  1. Good post, Brian, and you echo my thoughts re Salt and the 'one book' initiative.

    As someone trying to get a small indie publishing house off the ground from scratch, it's interesting (and somewhat daunting) to see that Salt - which has been a critical success during its 10 years - has had to attempt such initiatives to keep head above water.

    I was a little dubious at first, but having delved deeper, I think it's a very simple - and hopefully very successful - idea. After all, they're not asking any one person to fork out thousands to save them, just a few quid.

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  2. Has Salt published "a string of excellent literary novels"? I thought it was predominantly (though not exclusively) a short stories and poetry publisher - which is part of the reason they are in difficulties, as these two forms are notoriously difficult to sell.

    I have bought half a dozen or so Salt books in the past, and supported the Just One Book campaign last year, but I do think that there are issues which go beyond the recession, the World Cup and other reasons given by Salt last week.

    I'd say the main one is that they publish far too many books. According to Amazon's catalogue, they have sixty titles listed for publication between July and December of this year - that's ten a month! Salt books have high production values, and it must be very expensive to publish so many titles - and nigh on impossible to get the full force of their marketing muscle behind each one. I don't doubt that all the titles they issue are deserving, but if they published fewer, and pushed those fewer harder, they might be able to cut their costs dramatically without reducing their income by much. I also noticed the other week on Facebook that Chris Hamilton-Emery was talking about planning the Salt list for 2013! I don't think many large publishers plan that far ahead.

    I was relieved last year when I heard that Salt was planning to move into publishing more novels, but I can't say I'm excited by the proposed lists which are to be launched in November, Red Velvet and After Dark, which seems to be bodice-rippers and hardcore paranormal romance.

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  3. I suppose it depends how long a piece of string is - there certainly are a reasonable number of them, though I take the point about short stories (I did mention poetry).

    I think you may well be right in identifying over-reach as one of the causes of Salt's problems. I don't think that's a reason for not supporting them, but it is something they should be considering.

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  4. Excellent choice, Brian (IMO). I am a big Baines fan.

    My choice this time was Vanessa Gebbie's edited book, Short Circuit - essays on the short story. I bought her 'Words From a Glass Bubble' last year and thought that very good too.

    Little saddened to read about the advent of the bodice rippers and (especially) the paranormal stuff - but I expect that stuff sells, so maybe it will support the more literary stuff.

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  5. What I like about romance is that millions of people - predominantly women - buy it worldwide, it does what it says on the tin, and it supports itself by being a popular product. Literature - 'excellent literary novels', short stories, poetry - these give many people pleasure. Hard, perhaps, for those same people to believe or appreciate that popular fiction gives just as much, if not more, pleasure to the millions who buy it.

    I love romance, and I love great literature too. The two are not incompatible but part of a varied diet, just as you might enjoy hot dogs and popcorn on one occasion and opt for Beef Wellington the next. Great romance is genuinely moving, a cathartic experience for the reader, and well worth publishing. What I find most astonishing about romance, however, is the number of people who scorn it - often without ever having engaged with a single example of it.

    I'm extremely pleased that Salt is branching out into popular fiction with Embrace Books. It shows daring and versatility, and a will to survive by adapting to circumstance - which, after all, is how we all got here.

    Do please support Salt by buying one of their beautifully-produced books. They've even published a couple of mine.

    Jane Holland
    Editor: Embrace Books

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  6. She might be a bit biassed, but what Jane says makes a lot of sense, as far as the importance of commercial fiction goes - it shouldn't be regarded as a second class operation. I have no time for a snobbish approach that somehow rates 'literary' fiction or poetry above work that gives pleasure to millions.

    I think the concern is not so much that Salt is sullying itself with commercial work, but rather that it is spreading itself thinly at a difficult time.

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  7. Thanks, Brian. You'll be relieved to hear, however, that Salt isn't spreading itself thin. This is an entirely separate venture to Salt's usual publishing programme and no talents or energies are currently being diverted from that to handle the new line. Embrace is also entirely digital at the moment, so launch costs will be minimal.

    Basically, unless you are lucky enough to have a roaring bestseller on your hands, the economic model of many titles across a broad range is more likely to succeed in the long term than fewer titles being pushed to the hilt. Especially in poetry and short fiction, where readers are so very hard to come by.

    Salt has been the most exciting and innovative player in small independent publishing in the past decade. Here's to another ten years, and more!

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  8. Jane, you said: "Basically, unless you are lucky enough to have a roaring bestseller on your hands, the economic model of many titles across a broad range is more likely to succeed in the long term than fewer titles being pushed to the hilt. "

    I found myself feeling convinced by this just as much as I felt convinced by what John Self said earlier, so I was wondering if there is any study supporting this or is it from experience.

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  9. Well I'm not a businessman or an economist, so I'd be interested to know if my gut feeling (which is all it was) is borne out or if there is evidence to the contrary. What certainly seems to be beyond doubt is that Salt publish many more titles than most small indies, and that the other small indies do not seem to be having the same extreme financial difficulties that Salt do. Of course several small indies like Pushkin, Portobello and Granta have big private money behind them.

    With no disrespect to Jane Holland, who I'm sure will do a sterling job with the new lists, my concern about them is that they seem to fly in the face of what Salt is about, placing excellence at the forefront of their vision rather than popularity (though of course this is part of the problem).

    What it sounds like, to a sympathetic but unconnected outsider, is that they have latched onto the popularity of 'paranormal romance' post-Meyer and have decided to go in that direction as a response to their financial difficulties. In other words it looks like a purely commercial decision.

    Of course there's nothing wrong with romance in books - aren't Austen and the Brontes full of it? - though any book or series of books which defines itself by its subject category is asking to be looked on cynically. Great literature isn't incompatible with romance - of course not - but when there's plenty of great literature available with includes romance (or crime, or any other commonly derided genre), why would you want to read stuff that isn't great literature?

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  10. John, I refer you back to my earlier comment about food. When you can have great food, why eat something that isn't cordon bleu? Because you don't have time for cordon bleu, or you don't actually enjoy it, or you've had enough 'great' food and want something light and refreshing. We are all different and our tastes change from day to day, and from decade to decade.

    Reading a romance on the train the other day, I was sneered at by a professional woman in her thirties sitting opposite for my reading material. She was reading Heat magazine. No doubt she considered that acceptable reading material over and above romance, since it's a magazine, not a book, and therefore ephemera and not to be taken seriously.

    These double standards are applied so blithely where popular fiction is concerned, I am often astonished how some well-educated people feel entitled to dismiss entire genres on the grounds that everyone should read what they read and nothing else - what startling arrogance. But then, literary types sneered at Dickens too, for his funny little serialisations.

    Clare, I must refer you to Chris Hamilton-Emery, the director at Salt, who is far better equipped to discuss the economics of publishing with you.

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  11. Having said all that, if your taste buds prefer great literary works to popular fiction, remember that Salt is issuing a raffle ticket for every book before 31st August sold which could win you a bundle of 20 Salt titles.

    All of which will be poetry and excellent new literary fiction, without a doubt.

    By the way, Salt Publishing has just scored a hat-trick, being responsible for 3 books out of 5 on the just announced Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize shortlist.

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  12. Chrissie Gittins29 July 2010 at 09:14

    Funnily enough, Jane, I tried to have a dialogue with Chris on facebook about the economics of Salt Publishing. He has subsequently defriended me. It was Chris who first introduced me to Facebook and he published my first collection of short stories and my second collection of poetry. I can only conclude that things are so fragile at Salt that he can't brook any questions.

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  13. I should add, that what I love about independent publishers like Salt is their innate generosity and belief in taking on authors, particularly new authors, when they know first-hand how little profit is involved in publishing literary fiction - particularly by relative unknowns.

    That's what this blog post was all about in the first place. A salute to a brave and inspiring independent publisher struggling against the recession and increasingly brutal arts cuts: a salute to a small business which needs a friendly hand-up in these tough times, not another kick in the balls.

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  14. Mostly what Jane said - I did intend this as a salute (if not a saltation) to Salt. I think they are worth saving. I'm not saying they've done everything right - they haven't - but I don't think right now is the best time to be sticking the knife in. Give em a break, guys!

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