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Longing for a Simple Life

Speaking yesterday at the Writers’ and Artists’ Conference, Chair RICHARD CHARKIN presented a gloomy picture of  publishing today. With sales over the last 12 months in free-fall, the number one bestselling book of 2010 was… A Simples Life. I have my own grudge against the world of insurance, but loosing out to a meerkat in a silk smoking jacket seems to be a particularly harsh blow. Other winners were food and drink – with Jamie’s 30 minute meals in the top ten – and celebrity fare.

Something of a theme in my previous blogs, the erosion of value placed on books was reported as being to blame, attitudes fed by discounting and the wide availability of free e-books. The devil is the Internet and its name is Amazon, but what choice do readers have when booksellers no longer stock back-lists? A peculiar myth appears to prevail that publishers are sitting on stacks of money, when the reverse is very much the case. The total retail sales of number one best seller, John Grisham’s The Confession might top the price of two top of the range BMW’s; the retail sales of a book at the bottom of the paperback charts might pay for a humble Vesta scooter.

So what can the humble novelist do to reverse their fortunes? Have your novel made into a film appears to be one answer. Eat, Pray, Love received little publicity before the release of a film starring Julia Roberts. Despite poor reviews (Eat, Pray, Yawn must had given author Elizabeth Gilbert cause for regret) an  800% increase in sales resulted. The equally original headline, Eat, Pray, Cash-in followed after tie-in merchandise including a fragrance and jewellery followed.

The Richard and Judy affect has also been a phenomena, as have Literary Prizes. Bloomsbury published Howard Jacobsen’s The Finkler Question with expectations that it would sell 20,000 copies. It sold over 500,000 after winning the Booker.

This harsh dose of reality was not enough to deter the tightly-packed room of delegates. The provision of seminars for would-be authors seems to be a thriving industry in itself. Attendees I spoke to had travelled from as far afield as Fife, hoping for the opportunity to thrust their submission into the hand of super agent, Carole Blake. (Having found herself on the receiving end of a synopsis pushed under a lavatory door at one conference, she prefers a more professional approach.) With Alison Baverstock’s reminder that being published is utterly validating, hands were raised in desperation for the opportunity to  convince the panel that their offering – not the others – would be the very thing to reverse the fortunes of any struggling publisher. If only they weren’t battling with writing the tricky synopsis…

So did the conference deliver? The answer is yes and no. To hear speakers of the calibre of Esther Freud was an enormous pleasure, and to swap experiences with other writers is always insightful. But, as is frequently the case, the event was hi-jacked by those seeking a one-size-fits-all reply to their individual questions. (Questions that they might have found the answers to in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.) As Bloomsbury Editor-in-Chief admitted, “the publishing business breaks all of its rules quite often.” If the quality of the writing speaks for itself, who cares if the submission guidelines have been followed to the letter or not?

As I often feel after having a good film ruined by popcorn crunching, or a gig ruined by people who have come to drink six pints and – apparently – shout at each other, there were moments when I wondered if I would have better off at home with a good book. The carrot cake was awfully good, though.

Jane attended the Writers’ and Artists’ Conference at the Wellcome Centre, Euston Road.