NWR Issue 83

Serious Times

Readers of New Welsh Review will not need reminding that these are serious and exceptional times in which we live. That already hackneyed term 'the credit crunch' has become, in a matter of months, shorthand for an era of prevailing uncertainty and caution. Literary publishing, like any other business, will be determined by the new conditions. And the implications are worrying, to say the least.

Commercial publishers have been keen to point out that the publishing industry in general remains robust. While the sales of celebrity memoirs have experienced a downturn over the last year, trade non-fiction has taken a knock, and sales of hardbacks have likewise declined, paperback sales of mass market fiction remain healthy. And the publishing industry is nothing if not adaptable to popular demand. Mass market fiction lists will continue to be enhanced to satisfy a taste for escapism on the part of a beleaguered public. Trade non-fiction lists will be tailored to fit the social and economic change. But what will this mean for literary fiction?

Literary fiction is a high-risk operation even in times of great prosperity - and very often with low return. Though literary stars do - rarely - emerge who secure both commercial and critical success, the literary fiction lists at the commercial houses depend upon the fortunes of their more profitable siblings over at the trade and mass market divisions. Uncertainty, caution, and the development and re-invention of lists with true commercial potential mean that we will undoubtedly witness an ever more conservative approach to the literary fiction lists - particularly when it comes to fostering emergent talent.

And then there's the embattled and bold independent publisher - still, for my money, where you'll find the majority of exciting, unique and relevant writers in the UK today. In recent years, the independent publisher has played a greater role in helping to
influence the literary culture than ever before. An increase in award nominations and wins for literary prizes has gradually provided the independent publisher with visibility and prompted the commercial houses to pursue more adventurous avenues. In Wales, the success of the independents has, without hyperbole or large marketing budgets, provided proof positive of a renaissance in our literature. Our independents have nurtured talent and offered it mobility - as the recent signings of Rachel Trezise to Harper Collins and Tristan Hughes to Picador demonstrate, both of whom began their careers at Parthian. In a hostile commercial climate, with a dramatic increase in paper costs, with marketing budgets pared down still further, and questions over the future of subsidy in both in Wales and the wider UK abiding, how will the independents survive? And, if they are to survive, how will they be able to maintain what is, already, a regrettably but understandably modest output?

Print on demand, which theoretically presents lower overheads to publishers and no waste, would seem to offer a way forward for the independents. But until now it has remained largely stigmatised and ghettoised - the medium for self-publishing or for very specialist presses. So far, the metropolitan publishers, with the exception of Faber, who last year launched their Faber Finds imprint on a print on demand basis, have steered clear. Why? Print on demand brings with it new problems. Titles are significantly more expensive - as much as £5 more on a standard paperback. Booksellers will not stock titles without a returns clause. But, as print on demand suggests, titles are printed to order and not to provide core stock. This is how the money is saved. Sales must therefore be driven through sophisticated, attractive and expensive websites. For the independent publisher seeking to minimise financial risk but to also sell books, at present, this route would seem a poor bet indeed - in fact, it could lead to ruin. Without a presence in the bookshops and denied visibility, independent publishers who already struggle to gain notices in the broadsheets would, if they manage to stay solvent, effectively go underground - which sounds exciting, but actually isn't.

Magazines such as New Welsh Review offer a hospitable environment in which emergent writers of distinction can thrive, and enjoy early validation and an audience. Small but ambitious, we seek to play our part in helping to inform the culture. But the literary magazine, already faced with its own particular set of difficulties, will be further tested both in the short- and long-term.

Commentators have noted that serious and exceptional times produce serious and exceptional writers. But where will we find them?


previous editorial: Twenty-One
next editorial: Life and Times


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