WHAT WE ARE THINKING: newbooks is 15!

Article published on October 19, 2015.

 To celebrate our birthday, we take a look at how the book industry has changed since 2000, from Alastair Giles, MD of nudge and nb.

nb1, the first edition of this glorious magazine was published in November 2000. I admired it from afar, and, kept in touch professionally and personally with Guy, but have only recently been involved in its workings. Fifteen years later, it seems entirely appropriate to celebrate something that has not only survived but flourished, helping to launch so many new authors and alerting nb readers to great new books!

In that time incredible changes have taken place in UK publishing – back then, I was still enjoying long publishing lunches in central London and only just coming to terms with the wonders of email. The gargantuan and continual forward sweep of technology has affected every single aspect of and job in the industry and, sad to say, liquid lunches are much more scarce.

Publishing Phenomenon & Shifting Genre Popularity

At the turn of the century the industry was not yet obsessed by ebooks and new devices to read them on and more fascinated by how a series of children’s novels about a public school for wizards had come to dominate the book and then the film charts. The ageing Harry Potter was, perhaps, the first absolutely dominating bestseller franchise that we now see as very familiar. More and more focus is placed on the key bestsellers by fewer and fewer outlets so that the same books sell substantial quantities while the rest now make up a very long tail.

Similarly dominating franchises like the Twilight & The Hunger Games series took over the charts through the last decade and a half and demonstrated the spectacular success of young adult writing read by adults as well as children.

As for genres, we saw some interesting shifts in our reading tastes: self-styled ‘chick-lit’ grabbed a large and young female audience for quite a while, only to level off in the face of other strains of fiction. Later in the first decade and well into this one, crime fiction has become the commercial genre that all authors turn to if they want to reach bestseller lists. Peter James left behind a relatively successful horror-writing career to hit No1 with his inordinately popular Brighton police procedurals. John Banville irritated the writing fraternity when he turned from ‘literature’ to crime writing (as Benjamin Black) announcing he could write crime fiction in half the time. Even JK Rowling has now got into the act by – at first anonymously – penning the Robert Galbraith crime novels.

The most surprising new genre was perhaps the oldest, led by an unknown first-time novelist with the equivocal identity of EL James. 50 Shades of Grey heralded an extraordinary and monumental surge in sales of erotic fiction as British women (and, perhaps, a few good men) loosened their notoriously reserved approach to carnal relations. This franchise actually dwarfed the others in the century so far with a legion of very commercially successful ‘me too’ titles and, so far, we’ve only had one of the series filmed…

Reading Groups & TV Book Clubs

I won’t dwell on the most unsavoury aspects of the last 15 years, like misery memoirs or the annoyingly cheque-book fuelled celebrity autobiographies which greedily choke bookshop shelf space every autumn. Instead, I’m going to focus on the one area our own sage, Guy, so cleverly predicted when he launched nb – the rise and rise of the reading group phenomenon and the surge in reader power.

In the noughties, new writing for readers to delve into more deeply and discuss with their friends became the growth area of publishing. Doubly so, when the reading group effect was turbo-charged by TV coverage. Books have never really worked on TV before; you can see why, where’s the visual excitement? However, I happened to be in a meeting with a TV company during 2003 talking about televising a populist Book Awards ceremony, when the TV producer suggested a TV book club to go with it.

As it turned out the success of the book club easily overtook the profile of the awards show. The Richard & Judy Book Club – originally on Channel 4 but, now just a retail promotion at WH Smith – was undoubtedly one of the most influential promotional vehicles the book industry has ever had. Certainly the books selected felt the power of the endorsement in sales terms. Many of the authors paid off their mortgages on the back of the commercial ‘oomph’ of just one anointed novel. It was a neat circle of support that included; celebrity endorsement, retailer support, good PR and, of course, very good books astutely selected. I played a small role in making the campaign around the TV show as inclusive and far-reaching as it could be, but, the real reason for the effect lay in the book club being a specific new strand in an established day-time magazine TV show with an audience in excess of big 3 million, big numbers indeed.

There have been book specific TV shows before (though, no longer it seems, with BBC & Sky Arts both cancelling series recently), but fewer people tune into book-only programmes and the recommendations have less effect. nb magazine was one of the key indicators of a good book for the title selection. You, its readers, can congratulate yourselves on leading the way on some of what became the biggest selling novels of the last 15 years. Novels like The Lovely Bones, Brick Lane, A Gathering Light, The Jane Austen Book Club, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Cloud Atlas, March, Memory Keeper’s Daughter, House at Riverton, The Outcast, Guernica – all showcased as Recommended Reads before they became TV Book Club selections.

Technology challenges

The major change of the last 15 years is, of course, not what we read but the way in which we choose to read it. Libraries have been – and are being – scandalously under-resourced and left to decay by government after government, but if you’ve chosen to buy, not borrow you’ve been left with a bewildering array of choices which took the industry to the brink of desperation. Firstly, supermarkets dominated while independent bookshops dwindled and chains like Ottakar’s, Borders, Dillons & Books etc disappeared. Then Amazon came along with unbeatable consumer offers and indies took another battering. E-books appeared shortly after with rocketing sales of kindles and other e-readers. Amazon dominated that market, too, and threatened to strangle the life out of the book trade as indie closures continued at such a rate that we all wondered where and how soon it would all end and whether books would be printed at all.

How thrilling then that, as we complete this whistle-stop tour of the last decade and a half, the printed paperback and well-produced hardback remain our reading mechanism of choice. E-book sales have flattened to around 30% of the market but, significantly, e-reader sales have dropped off a cliff with tablets, phones & phablets winning that tech war. The publishing industry, like every other in the last 10 years, has changed at a rate not seen ever before but it breathed a sigh of relief that it didn’t go the same way as music. Now it can return to the business of unearthing gems amongst the morass of self-publishing that takes place today. The writer and reader are in rude health. Even well-managed independent bookshops flourish now. We just need a decent book magazine to help us find our next read for another 15 years….

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RG: the READing group

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