Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Timeline: 1997 to 2008 - A Thriller in Ten Chapters

Follow up article by Robert McCrum at the Observer.



The Observer's literary editor Robert McCrum stood down this month after more than 10 years in the job. And what a tumultuous 10 years. When he started it was a world of 'cigarettes, coffee and strong drink'. But that has all changed - new writers, big money, the internet, lucrative prizes and literary festivals have all helped revolutionise the books world. Here he charts the changes in 10 short chapters - and wonders if an 'iPod moment' is imminent.

The story is told of GK Chesterton delivering proofs, late, to his editor. The office was deserted, with just one person, from the accounts department, to take delivery of the great man's work. When Chesterton produced from his bag not only his corrected pages but a bottle of port and a glass, the terrified clerk confessed he was teetotal. 'Good heavens,' Chesterton squeaked in dismay. 'Give me back my proofs!'

When I joined The Observer in 1996, the world of books was in limbo between hot metal and cool word processing, but it would have been recognisable to many of our past contributors, from George Orwell and Cyril Connolly, to Anthony Burgess and Clive James. Everything smelled of the lamp. It was a world of ink and paper; of cigarettes, coffee and strong drink. Our distinguished critic George Steiner used to submit his copy in annotated typescript.

The business end of books - WH Smith, Dillons and Waterstone's - was run by anonymous men in suits whose judgments were largely ignored. Trade was trade. Literature was another calling. The atmosphere was dingy, time-hallowed and faintly collegiate. Every October, we all got together in the Guildhall and gave a cheque to the novelist of the year. In 1996, the winner of the Booker Prize was Last Orders by Graham Swift.

Now that world is more or less extinct. Many of the great names from those times (Hughes, Murdoch, Mailer, Heller, Gunn, Miller, Vonnegut) are gone. Books, meanwhile, have been pushed to the edge of the radar. A series of small but significant insurrections has placed the language and habits of the market at the heart of every literary transaction. The world of books and writing has been turned inside out by the biggest revolution since William Caxton set up his printing shop in the precincts of Westminster Abbey.

Heaven or hell? It's too soon to say. This is a story whose outcome remains mysterious. There's no doubt that this transitional decade from the 20th to the 21st century has been decisive, but no one knows when or how it will end. One thing is certain: the appetite for print is growing. In 1996, there were between 60,000 and 100,000 new titles in the UK each year. By 2007, it was pushing 200,000. That's the biggest annual output of any country in the Western world, turning over some £4bn a year.

All this has been fuelled by an explosive mixture of global commerce and technology. In simple terms, you could say that Amazon plus Microsoft equals a new literary stratosphere. Two things complicate this equation. First, despite the steady evolution from typesetting to digitisation, the printed book has held out against electronic options. It is as if, after lift-off, the Apollo mission turned out to be not a space capsule but a Spitfire.

Second, it remains the paradox of the world wide web and the global economy that, while this has been the decade in which millions have found a voice through the internet, only a minority has discovered an audience. Self-expression has been democratised, but books and writers still face that age-old struggle to achieve a readership. How they do that remains a mystery, but in the alchemy of literary success, 'word of mouth' remains essential.

At the turn of the millennium, this concept was given a brilliant new spin by a young Canadian journalist, Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point was almost a flop. It was published to mixed reviews in the US, did no serious business in the UK and was saved by - yes - word of mouth. After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book 'tip'. Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. This was one of those pivotal moments that illustrates the story of this decade.

People will argue about the decisive milestones (I have come up with my own 10, which I have set out in chapters), but there will be general agreement that, in Britain, a decade of change starts with the election of New Labour in 1997. That was also the year Random House launched its website, John Updike published a short story online and Vintage started a series of reading guides to encourage new book clubs. As well as new readers, the millennium saw the emergence of a new literary generation, writers born in the Sixties and Seventies, and few of them more fascinating than Zadie Smith...

Chapter 1: New Blood: Zadie Smith

The author of White Teeth was first noticed in 1997 when she landed an unheard-of advance, rumoured to be £250,000, for her work-in-progress. Such hype was dangerous. When publication came in 2000, there were plenty of envious critics to pronounce her book dead on arrival, as they had done to so many precocious talents in the past. But White Teeth was exhilaratingly and distinctively new. In his review for The Observer, Caryl Phillips declared that her 'wit, her breadth of vision and her ambition are of her own making'.

With worldwide sales of more than 2 million, White Teeth won success that was sustained by a new global market. The effect was almost instantaneous. In London, Sydney, Delhi and New York, publishers were now on the alert for 'the next Zadie Smith', a new generation of writers - Hari Kunzru, Monica Ali, Kiran Desai, Peter Ho Davies and Ali Smith among them - who would replace Ackroyd, Rushdie, Swift and Seth.

These new faces represented a global culture. The revolution in the marketplace was global, too. It can be expressed in one word: Amazon...

Chapter 2: Amazon

In the excitement of the dotcom boom, from which Amazon (launched in 1995) emerged as a fortunate survivor, the most visible symbol of change was a marriage between the 600-year-old printed book and the high-tech world of online selling. At first, it seemed like a marginal enterprise: in 1996, Amazon sold just $16m worth of books to 180,000 customers. By 2007, sales had soared to $3.58bn in 200 countries. On one single day, 10 December 2007, Amazon customers ordered 5.4 million items. Without Amazon, there would have been no 'long tail', no 'online bookselling' and no Richard & Judy Book Club.

The club's executive producer, Amanda Ross - identified by an Observer poll as the most powerful figure in the British book world - says it was Amazon's rankings that provided the essential data for 'doing books' on TV. 'When we started,' she remembers, 'we used to plug into Amazon before and after the show. We could see at once that people were watching and then buying the books we'd featured.'

Ross's company, Cactus, was influenced by the example of Oprah Winfrey in the US, but she says: 'We were doing something rather different. Oprah was sycophantic towards the author. We didn't want to have the author anywhere near the studio. We wanted to have a proper chat about books. And we used celebrities because we didn't want to intimidate the viewer.'

Amazon was indispensable to this process. Across the English-speaking world, it did one simple thing, with profound consequences: it united the market. Previously, new editions of books had been confined to territories like 'North America', 'Australasia' or 'the West Indies'. Now books could be accessed by and sold to customers across the world. Where once books travelled from the publisher's warehouse to the consumer at the speed of a Dickens stagecoach, now two or three days was the norm. Almost as revolutionary, Amazon, and its imitators, put the customer first.

New writers who found a readership in the global marketplace began to command substantial advances. By the end of the 1990s, a new generation of market-savvy literary entrepreneurs was beginning to emerge. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) by Dave Eggers was one of the first titles to benefit from this new global English audience. Hari Kunzru netted about £1.25m from international sales of The Impressionist (2002) and Nick Hornby endured all kinds of envious commentary for an advance of £2m from Penguin. Several other bestselling writers wisely kept their earnings to themselves, but the headline news, never fully reported, was that, at the top end, the book trade was now bestowing extraordinary riches on a privileged and talented few.

Money (too much of it) also cursed the launch of Londonstani by Gautam Malkani and Richard Mason's The Drowning People. Nobel laureate Doris Lessing has been one of the few writers secure enough to speak out against the aggressive marketing of young quasi-celebrity authors. She observed recently: 'If you're a girl who's good-looking and has written even a passable book, you can be earning enormous sums very quickly and are then sent on a promotional tour.' This, says Lessing, is the worst possible thing for a young writer because it denies them the all-important environment of the 'empty space' in which to write.

Such a market-driven process makes the young writer a hostage to the book trade, reversing the traditional flow of influence between artist and merchant. There are, of course, any number of counter-examples. One writer, who found plenty of empty space to develop her vision, and who would eventually hold the world's book trade in the palm of her manicured hand, was a children's book writer named Jo Rowling...

Chapter 3: JK Rowling

I began to grasp the true dimensions of the Harry Potter phenomenon on the morning of 8 July 2000. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone had been published - a good lesson this - with a tiny first printing of 500 in 1997, to modest but enthusiastic reviews, swiftly followed by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Such was the word-of-mouth success of the series that Bloomsbury took the unusual step of releasing the new book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, to the literary media at 6am on a Saturday morning. As I drove at dawn to Bloomsbury's central London offices for my copy, I passed an extraordinary sight. Snaking down the pavement outside Hatchards on Piccadilly was a long line of Harry Potter fans, all waiting to devour the latest 636 pages of Harry Potter.

This was not driven by celebrity hype or massive discounting (this was Hatchards, not Asda) or bestsellerism, but by readers' passionate desire to get the next instalment. Just as ardent Dickens fans in New York were said to have greeted transatlantic vessels with: 'How is Little Nell?', so the queue in Piccadilly was animated by the same question: 'What will happen next?'

Rowling never failed to grasp that her job was to tell a story. In the countdown to the launch of the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, one London bookshop teased its readers with a huge window display: How Will It End?

My feeling, as I wrote in the summer of 2000, remains that this was 'a commercial blockbuster with knobs on, storytelling of a high order but not to be spoken of in the same breath as CS Lewis. Not that Rowling will give two snitches: she will be laughing all the way to the bank.'

Indeed she did. Ms Rowling has now sold some 400 million copies of her books and is worth £545m. By nice coincidence, the story of the public-school boy with magical powers came to a close in the same month that Tony Blair stepped down from his premiership.

Occasionally, the pressures of this new market for books, and its concomitant vulgarisation, would inspire a protest, but such moments were rare. In 2001, American novelist Jonathan Franzen staged a highly significant freak-out...

Chapter 4: The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen, who had laboured in near-destitute obscurity throughout the Nineties, spoilt his publisher's lunch by refusing to allow The Corrections, his 'sweeping account of a dysfunctional American family' and the surprise literary bestseller of the stricken 9/11 season, to be selected for Oprah's Book Club.

What Franzen objected to, as he had every right to do, was that in order to join 'Oprah's authors', a rollcall that included Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, he had to allow the chat-show queen to label The Corrections with her garish orange book club logo, a promotional vehicle, he said, for 'schmaltzy, one-dimensional novels'. Franzen's artistic soul would not permit this. 'I see this book as my creation and I didn't want that logo of corporate ownership on it,' he was reported to have said, presumably overlooking that the logo of his distinguished American publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) already identified his book as part of the Holtzbrinck corporate empire. Just in case his message had been misunderstood, and as a further assertion of the disintegrating old-school claim that highbrow and popular culture are mutually exclusive, he added: 'I feel like I'm solidly in the high-art literary tradition.'

To this, Ms Winfrey responded by swiftly disinviting him from her club.

The Franzen episode illustrates the paradox of this decade that the more golden the opportunities available to the book, the more marginal, even vulnerable, it has seemed to become. Despite, or perhaps because of, this market transformation, the common reader, and many authors, have not been grateful. An oddity of this New Labour book boom is that it has left many readers querulous and unsatisfied. Like many cultural phenomena, this is partly real, partly an illusion.

Behind the brilliant façade of new technology, new money, and new markets, there has indeed been a massive interior renovation in the house of books: senior editors taking early retirement, small imprints selling up, little magazines folding, middle-aged writers giving up and corner bookshops closing down countrywide. At the same time, introspective, old-style bookishness has been replaced by another icon of these times - the literary festival...

Chapter 5: Festivals

When Peter Florence and his father, Norman, enthusiastic provincial bibliomanes, launched the first Hay-on-Wye literary festival in 1988, the experience offered to the public was distinctly unpromising. A wet weekend in Wales? A town devoid of acceptable hotels and restaurants? A marquee in a muddy field? But against the odds, Hay flourished. The punters came. The writers had a good time. Slowly the idea took off.

Hay's tipping point came in 2001 with the visit of ex-US President Bill Clinton. With his genius for infectious slogans, Clinton declared Hay 'the Woodstock of the mind'. Exactly! After Clinton's barnstorming visit (who could ever forget the way he worked the crowd?), literary festivals became the new rock'n'roll. Soon, there was hardly a town in Britain that did not hold some kind of literary festival.

Traditionally, the special joy of the book was that you communed with it in the one place that no one else can trespass: your head. Only poets and playwrights were expected to celebrate their art in public. With a few exceptions, like Dickens, writers of novels stayed at their desks, their proper domain, in the world of the imagination.

Not any more. The novelist had become a cross between a commercial traveller, a rock musician and a jobbing preacher. What did it signify? The cultural historians of the future will surely pick over the larger meaning of this festival fever but one thing was indisputable: in just over a generation, the novel had gone public in the most astounding way. Even the Booker Prize, symbol of tradition and continuity in the literary world, surrendered to the new mood and found a typically 21st-century sponsor, the Man Group, a Canadian venture capital company. After 2001, prizes joined festivals at the cutting edge of literary life....

Chapter 6: Prizes

In 2002, exhilarated by the Man Group's new money and grandiose cultural ambitions, the Booker administrators moved the prize-giving dinner from the Guildhall to the British Museum and appointed the witty and provocative Lisa Jardine as the chair. Professor Jardine immediately set the tone by declaring that the shortlist for 2002 marked 'the beginning of a new era'.

Promisingly, for those who had grown weary of Booker fiction, some of her fellow judges then waded in with snappy comments about the novels they had been required to read. 'It's like a formula,' complained David Baddiel. 'They attempt to grab a big theme, and have a vulgar, obvious seriousness, even a kind of pompous pretentiousness, about them.'

Way to go! We hadn't heard this kind of talk since John Berger donated his prize money (for his novel G) to the Black Panthers. Next, in another defining moment of literary prize marketing, Jardine took her panel for an impromptu ride on the London Eye (ostensibly to settle a dispute about the plausibility of a scene from Howard Jacobson's novel Who's Sorry Now?). It would be hard to imagine previous panellists - for instance Philip Larkin, Penelope Fitzgerald or Cyril Connolly - submitting to such a jape. But the Man Group wanted a marketable prize and this Jardine delivered with merry zeal. She also steered her committee to choose a novel, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, that the reading public actually enjoyed (it remains the favourite with Booker's reading public).

Book prizes, notably Orange, Whitbread (rebranded as Costa) and Samuel Johnson, now began to play a new and important role, one previously played by reviews. In 2008, the literary prize has become one of the most reliable guides to the literary maze, a map to the perplexing contours of the book landscape.

Kate Mosse, founder of the remarkable Orange Prize, says: 'Prizes, far more than star reviews, are what make books succeed now and it's also prizes that give readers the confidence to trust a new writer.' For example, Anthony Cheetham of Quercus Publishing reports that when Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves won the 2006 Costa Prize, her sales jumped from about 40,000 to 400,000 copies.

So all-consuming were these upheavals in the book world that few paid attention to that other great crisis of these years, the Iraq War. In literary terms, this was the dog that did not bark. True, there have been many volumes of reportage from Baghdad (notably George Packer's The Assassins' Gate). But as far as I am aware, and in stark contrast to the many novels inspired by 9/11), only one novelist has been moved to tackle the subject of Iraq, achieving a high-low cultural response derived partly from his own anguished reaction to the war. If there was one writer whose popular success typifies this decade, it is Ian McEwan...

Chapter 7: Ian Mcewan

Saturday is probably not McEwan's best book and comes some way down a list that includes Atonement, The Child in Time, The Innocent and Amsterdam. Nevertheless, when it was published in 2005, Saturday enjoyed the kind of success that can only be explained by this new worldwide market for English literature.

After its first week of publication, Saturday was doing so well that it actually became a news item on the ITN evening news. The conventional reviews had been far from ecstatic but there it was, piled up in the supermarkets and reported on commercial television. The day a British novel by a 'literary novelist' became a TV news item was certainly one of the moments of this decade.

Although the new millennium had seen the changing of the guard, McEwan was a canny survivor whose command of the market was sustained by the film of Atonement and then by his novella On Chesil Beach, shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize.

Even so, in the new marketplace, literary fiction still had its limits. This was dramatically demonstrated when On Chesil Beach, together with the entire Booker Prize shortlist, was outsold by Crystal, a ghosted novel marketed under the brand name Katie Price, formerly the model Jordan. Last month, another book by Katie Price appeared as a contender at the British Book Awards, producing a frisson of anxiety in some literary quarters. Tracy Chevalier was 'shocked'. Robert Harris described the affair as 'emblematic of the tacky culture we live in'.

Had the market gone too far? What did it say about British culture that a ghosted children's book should be considered for a literary prize? Actually, it was just the market flexing its muscles.

The crisis in confidence among some cultural gatekeepers was revealing. After a decade of change, many of the old, elite signposts through the contemporary jungle of books and writing had become smothered in a profusion of comment, from blogs to book clubs. It became harder and harder to achieve a serious-minded consensus. The dictates of commerce seemed to threaten the traditional authority of the critic. Could it be that booksellers were now more important than reviewers...?

Chapter 8 Blogs Vs Reviewing

If you believe, as I do, that Britain still sustains a vigorous and independent literary culture, look at America. The omens are not encouraging. American democratic instincts have transformed its literary landscape as surely as its colossal market has revolutionised bookselling. Anyone can review books - and now, in America, everyone does.

Book blogs such as, and now have such power and influence that a publisher's editor in Manhattan is likely to advise a new novelist not that they will be reviewed in the New York Times but that they will be covered on This, according to Trish Todd of Simon & Schuster, 'is the wave of the future'.

Occasionally, in the past year, this wave has threatened to sweep away many of the old landmarks on the coast of literature. In California, the LA Times merged its stand-alone book review section into a 'comment' supplement, while the San Francisco Chronicle's book review shrank from six to four pages. But the news that hit the headlines and inspired widespread head-shaking was the decision by the Georgian daily newspaper Atlanta Journal-Constitution to abolish its books editor. Howls of pain reverberated across the States. The New York Times, which still publishes an excellent books section, noted mischievously that a certain Dan Wickett, a former quality-control manager for a car-parts manufacturer, was now singlehandedly writing 'half as many reviews as appeared in all of the books pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution'.

Readers had been posting reviews on Amazon for year. Now these book blogs - in Britain, for example, a highly responsible site like Vulpes Libris - could take over and hand the power back to - time honoured term - the Common Reader. My view is that the Common Reader generates more heat than light. On closer scrutiny, we find that this creature, as fabled as the hippogriff, is just as uncertain as everyone else. The equation of Amazon plus Microsoft has left the Common Reader dazed and confused. How else to explain the extraordinary success in 2003 of Eats, Shoots & Leaves...?

Chapter 9: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

A little book with a fearsome subtitle - The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation - Lynne Truss's plea for proper English usage touched a nerve. Eats, Shoots & Leaves spoke to an anxiety about usage and standards in an age of cultural upheaval. Perhaps you can't police the internet but at least you could take a stand on the sanctity of the Oxford comma. Truss's little book (scarcely 200 pages) was a statement of defiance in a complex and troubling cultural landscape.

Here, the new global market played its part. Word of mouth on a worldwide scale made Eats, Shoots & Leaves a bestseller in Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. With such numbers in so many parts of the globe, now intimately linked via the world wide web, had the time not come for the printed word to be available in electronic form...?

Chapter 10: The Kindle

There have been many false dawns in the new world of digital publishing, but this spring can make a good claim to have witnessed the tipping point in the innovative commercial development of e-reading. While the market expanded, and more and more readers were enfranchised by the English language, the technology was racing to keep up.

In November 2007, these two forces finally converged with the American launch of the Kindle, the first electronic book to capture the imagination of professional readers - the publishers and literary agents. The Kindle, in direct competition with the Sony Reader, is a handheld, wireless reading device that can hold all manner of digital material, ranging from PDF files containing unpublished manuscripts to the complete works of Marcel Proust.

The Kindle is the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, a man who has already made one fortune from global online bookselling. It has many of the features of its e-book predecessor, the Sony Reader. But what sets the Kindle apart is one new feature: wireless connectivity via a system called Whispernet. As a result, says Bezos: 'This isn't a device, it's a service.'

Here, with the actual marriage of Amazon with the world of internet technology, a reckoning seemed finally to be due. Was it not time to say Goodbye Gutenberg? Were we now about to see that long-predicted 'iPod moment' for books, the moment when the new technology finally swept six centuries of ink and paper aside in the low electronic hum of integrated microchips.

For five years and more, there had been a steady trend towards the digitisation of the world's copyright material, pioneered by the Google Print Initiative. To Google's alliance with some of the world's greatest libraries, including the Bodleian, all the major publishers had responded by digitising their back lists. There were protests and baleful warnings about 'intellectual property rights', but almost everyone had begun to anticipate the day when a workable e-book would arrive.

You know the game is up for traditional publishing when the CEO of Random House delivers a lecture entitled 'New Chapter or Last Page? Publishing Books in a Digital Age.' On 11 March this year, Gail Rebuck declared: 'Digitisation is here and books will never be the same again. Digitisation frees books to reach new audiences in new ways. Books used to furnish a room,' she joked. 'Now they will furnish a virtual world. The e-book is here and its impact will be far-reaching.'

She was, at times, even blithe in the face of change: 'We are not concerned,' she said, 'as long as you want to read it, we are happy to supply books in whatever form you like...'

No, said Rebuck, this was not a threat - not the end of civilisation - but a wonderful opportunity. Rebuck's message, now widely shared, is that the Kindle and its e-book competitors will not kill the book but happily co-exist with it in a bright new bi-literary environment.

Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury concurs. He says: 'There will continue to be a market for printed books for a very long time. I believe the bulk of people will still prefer to hold, feel, treasure, give, receive, display and read a printed book.' Tellingly, Charkin adds: 'Unlike CDs, I do not think books will be displaced by downloads.'

The 'iPod moment' in the book world, so often postponed, is expected to happen this year, probably in the autumn. It's an awesome prospect. John Naughton, The Observer's veteran internet correspondent, has calculated that 'the indexed part [of the world wide web] hovers at around 40 billion pages' while the so-called 'deep web', hidden from search engines, is between 400 and 750 times bigger than that.

Universal access to this virtual library, and electronic browsing through its myriad files, will be an enthralling prospect in the immediate future. Charkin says: 'There will be continuing competition for leisure time. Publishers will have to make books even more desirable as objects. If we do so, there will continue to be a thriving market for great printed novels.'

Readers and writers may now experience the liberation of literature in ways that Caxton never dreamed of. The word, written and spoken, remains at the heart of our culture, but it's no longer watched by a Praetorian Guard of elite gatekeepers. It has been handed back whence it came, from the few to the many.

This, perhaps, explains the paradox that despite more book activity than ever, the book itself seems less central than before. Actually, what I have described are the birth pangs of a golden age. The market for the printed book is now global; the opportunities for the digital book are almost unimaginable. To be a writer in the English language today is to be one of the luckiest people alive.


Brian M Logan

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