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Media Revolution: Secrets of publishing

Updated Thursday 12th February 2009

Libby Potter speaks to Larry Finlay, Managing Director of Transworld, about the secrets of publishing

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New authors entering the market

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Libby Potter: Because of those enormous royalties, these big advances that have to be paid to the likes of Paul O’Grady etc, does it stifle the amount of new authors that you can introduce just purely in a commercial sense? I mean, do you have enough money left?

Larry Finlay: Yeah, I honestly don’t think that celebrity autobiography is affecting what fiction people are buying. What has changed dramatically over the last few years, eversince the Net Book Agreement went in back in 1995, but particularly over the last two to three years, is… Well, there’s a whole host of things that have changed but one of them is the homogenating of the high street. What you see in Waterstones is more or less what you’ll see in Tesco’s or Asda or see front of house in Amazon, you see in WH Smith. There’s much less disparity between different books on offer at the front of the store.

So that’s changed, and that is mitigating against some lack of fiction, definitely. But I don’t think it’s the big advances that are genuinely, because actually they’re generating income for publishers and for booksellers that you could say is affording us to experiment more with fiction.

Libby Potter: Yeah.

 

Net book agreement

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Libby Potter: So why did the Net Book Agreement, or the end of the Net Book Agreement affect the variety of books available? I mean why would that phenomenon happen?

Larry Finlay: Well a whole host of things, but one of the net effects, which has not necessarily been to publishers’ upset, has been a huge increase in the sales for a very limited range of books in hard cover. So, back in the early Nineties one would have considered fifty thousand copies a really good sale for a book in hard cover. Nowadays, the biggest selling in fiction is selling two hundred, two hundred and fifty thousand copies of the very biggest, but certainly over hundred thousand’s not unusual for the very biggest brand names. And in non-fiction, for the very few that really make it, we’re talking about several hundreds of thousands of copies, but, at the same time a huge diminished quantity of everything else.

Libby Potter: Yeah.

Larry Finlay: And why? Because at £9.99 or £12.99, you know, a much reduced price point, the new Jilly Cooper, the new Stephen King, the new whatever… your tried and trusted authors who you love, you may not wait for their book to come in paperback, you think “Oh I’ve got to read it now.” But you’re not going to experiment and buy an unknown, you’re much less likely to experiment and buy an unknown novelist in hard cover.

Libby Potter: Yeah.

 

The winners of publishing

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Libby Potter:So who are the winners in this situation?

Larry Finlay: Who are the winners? I suppose the big selling novelists, the big selling non-fiction authors of big autobiographies - and the public, actually. The public probably are the biggest winners in that book prices, the real price of books, has come down dramatically over the last fifteen years; so the average price of a paperback now is not that much more than a greetings card - or than a magazine, which is here today and rather miserably gone tomorrow. And books, you know, last for ever - if you want them to.

The great thing about a book is, it’s instantly disposable, you can get suntan lotion on it, you can drop it in the bath, you can throw it away when you’ve finished with it, or even keep it for ever, give it to your girlfriend, your wife, your husband, your mother, you can keep it on your bookshelf for ever and it costs £3.50, £3.99. It’s so cheap. So the real winners, actually, I believe to be the public.

The secret of a best-seller

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Libby Potter: Because not all great books are great sellers, so what is the sort of, the alchemy behind a best seller?

Larry Finlay: The great imponderable, I wish I knew. We get it right very often. We don’t always get it right, no publisher does - no-one has the monopoly on spotting the big next thing. I guess that’s what makes the business so exciting to work in because there is no right or wrong answer, and the same book in a different publisher’s hands would be treated differently and might not become as much of a success elsewhere.

So it is dependent on a whole factor of things; the way in which it’s pitched to the book trade, the cover package put onto the front of the book. It’s interesting, some books will do brilliantly in one territory and one country and not in another, and that often is down to just the cover…

Libby Potter: Yeah.

Larry Finlay: …so there’s so many different factors that can make a book work.

Larry Finlay was interviewed during the making of Stop Press, which first aired February 2009 on BBC Two. It was part of the Media Revolutions series.

 

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