Serious Non-Fiction: Doomed?

Eoin Purcell

Bodley Head thinks not
I’m honest enough to acknowledge that if I was the average buyer of books, our industry would be in a fairly fantastic position. Firstly I buy too many (even with a mostly effective book buying bar I’m tallying about 5 or 6 a month) and I buy expensive (a weakness for serious non-fiction and hardback new release genre fiction). I’m rarely swayed by 342 offers unless someone does it across the range when I take advantage to pick up a selection of backlist titles I have eyed for a while (mostly non-fiction).

In any case, I am not the average reader and that makes for a tricky time for serious non-fiction publishers. In fact there have been some signs that serious there will be thin times ahead and the dumping of books by W&N as mentioned twice before on this blog is just the tip of the iceberg.

There is an interesting piece in today’s Independent (the London variety) which paints the market in a very negative light:

Anecdotal evidence abounds that high-quality works of history fail to arouse the level of support in the retail trade that they once did. That, in turn, inhibits editors who seek to commission more of the same.

Dissing retailers is easy enough for most book people but the really harsh words though are reserved for publishers:

Too often, even the most dedicated houses have been content to print good popular history rather than really publish it. That attitude no longer suffices. Given high-street resistance, 50 per cent and more of likely sales for many top-notch histories will soon come from online outlets. Which means that publishers have to toil to recruit and retain virtual communities with a passion for the past.

All this makes the relaunch of Bodley Head as “a list devoted to quality non-fiction” quite a strange and perhaps a brave move. You will find a fascinating article on the topic by imprint publishing director Will Sulkin in Publishing News:
So why The Bodley Head? Why now? What does Random House think it’s doing?

Well, for a start, if you’re a major player in any field then you need to know you’re playing with a full deck. We didn’t have a World’s Classics list, so we started Vintage Classics. (And what a success that’s turning out to be.) We haven’t had a Penguin Press, so we’re launching The Bodley Head.
And this, for the first time, allows Random House to concentrate its formidable resources on the acquisition, design, marketing, publicising, production and selling of quality non-fiction – to become a specialist in the field. It gives the likes of Misha Glenny, Jonathan Powell, Roger Penrose, Karen Armstrong, Simon Schama, Nicholas Stern, Stephen Greenblatt, Norman Davies, et al a purpose-built platform for their wares – somewhere the texts can be hand-crafted and polished by a peerless editorial team and sent out into the world in the best shape and with the best chance of reaching the broadest possible readership.

I like the idea here. Basically he is saying We did it because we could!! How is that for confidence? You have to admire the ambition too.

Hoping it works,
Eoin

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3 comments

  1. I’m really hoping it works! It’s absolutely typical that I should be trying to enter the non-fiction world just as its in a major period of retrench. I do appreciate the stories you are highlighting here, Eoin. You’ve become (as if you ever weren’t) my main source of information on this issue!

  2. Litlove,

    There’ll always be a market for work of your quality!

    I read a great piece in the bookseller today, Lord Weidenfeld responding. I’m going to write it up on the blog.

    Eoin

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