HarperCollins’s exclusive deal with Sainsbury’s proves UK publishers are increasingly cynical and risk averse

There are many reasons why UK publishing houses are struggling in the 21st century. There’s copyright theft. There’s the fact that people don’t like to pay as much for ebooks. There’s the general malaise on the high street. There’s the diminution of disposable income. There’s the fact that JK Rowling isn’t writing Harry Potter any more …

But these issues fade into insignificance against the single biggest (but rarely acknowledged) problem in publishing today: most of the biggest firms are dominated by cynics and fools. The people in control care nothing for the quality of the product and will always put short-term gain before long-term growth. They remain frustratingly risk averse when it comes to publishing original or unusual material, or promoting new writers, but they will happily endanger their long-term survival at the merest hint of skirt from a big corporation.

The latest indication of the industry’s determination to waz on its own chips came this Wednesday when HarperCollins imprint Avon announced a three-book exclusive deal with Sainsbury’s.

It was only last month that I was waxing irascible about the fact that the supermarket was given the “Martina Cole general or chain bookselling company of the year award” at the Bookseller industry awards. There’s no need to go into further detail about problems caused when supermarkets devalue books by stocking them as loss leaders and the trouble it causes for publishing when they take sales from traditional booksellers. But this latest development does pose new issues.

Firstly, what does it mean for the industry if this type of exclusive deal becomes more common? At the moment, it’s possible to imagine that HarperCollins got a pretty good deal out of it – but how long will that last once the competition has been driven out of existence. Supplying supermarkets hasn’t exactly benefited dairy farmers so why do publishers think they are likely to be different?

Furthermore, what does it mean that supermarkets can now start to dictate what sort of books are produced? It was bad enough when they just decided what books jackets look like, what the titles should be and even (and of this I have had personal experience) how much swearing they contain. Now they are in a position to dictate how the pages should be filled – and more unsettling still, who should fill them.

The books Sainsbury’s will be selling exclusively are Trisha Ashley’s Sowing Secrets, Beverly Barton’s Amnesia and The Perfect Christmas by Georgie Carter. The first two hit the shelves in July, the third, naturally enough will be clogging them up during the festive season. I haven’t read any of them, and for all I know they could be marvellous, but looking at the authors’ resumes leads me to suspect otherwise.

Most of what you will need to know about Trisha Ashley can be gleaned from the pastel-coloured covers on her website. The sheer volume of Beverly Barton’s output meanwhile, leads me to suspect she is of the “typing” rather than “writing” school of literary production. Georgie Carter, meanwhile, is especially intriguing. I first looked her up on Amazon (where, ironically enough, the book is unavailable). The blurb reads: “Georgie Carter started writing stories as a teenager, often based on her somewhat chaotic family, and then wrote for women’s magazines. Her experience as a pastry chef at a prestigious London restaurant, has meant that she’s attended numerous wedding receptions, witnessing firsthand the ingredients that can make or break a wedding day. The Perfect Christmas Present is her first novel.”

Research elsewhere shows that Georgie Carter is actually Ruth Saberton, an established author of romantic fiction. So Georgie Carter is an artificial construct created to flog a Christmas tie-in. I don’t think it’s snobbery to suggest that that is unlikely to be remembered as a classic.

The race to the bottom grows ever more frenetic.

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