The Australian is doing a good job of keeping the discussion of our literary culture front and centre. Saturday's discussion of Book Scan was fascinating and illuminating. As Andrew Wilkins points out Book Scan only captures part of the data, mainly that from high-street and mall shop cash registers, especially chains. Only 28% of the independents are covered and none of the "educational' sales or those that go from the printer to direct accounts appear. (Maybe this is more significant in children's publishing and Book Scan gives an even less accurate picture in that genre.) If, as some suggest, the multinationals who can afford the full suite of data use it to publish by, then it will leave plenty of opportunity for the rest of us to be innovative and interesting. The old saw is that the sales department wants more of yesterday's bestseller but the market has moved on.
For some time multinationals have wanted every book to pay its way - which given big overheads means a sizeable contribution - but I don't think its Book Scan's fault. As a business decision it makes a lot of sense - in the short term. As the savvy UK independent Snowbooks points out, its the way publicly listed companies need to operate. But how does it work in the longer run? Do authors want to be published by someone reluctant to invest in them in the early years and quick to cut them off if sales show a temporary decline? I guess that the size of the advance may make it worth the risk from an author's point of view. One publishing colleague acknowledged that if we're to have a continuing writing culture we need to invest in writers but thought that publishing books that were at risk of not contributing the necessary margin a bad way to do it. He admitted, though, he could think of no other. I think the regime of making every book pay its way is also more comfortably applied in a branch-plant business.