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Sucking the air out of the system

12 January 2009

'The heart and soul of any publishing business is its editorial department, the men and women who, crudely, acquire the 'content' on which the imprint depends. In the past 20 years, editorial freedom has become eroded. Sales people have increased their influence as bookshops have gained power at the expense of publishers. Gone are the days, with rare exceptions, when an editor's positive enthusiasm for a new book could trump the negative anxieties of the sales department, almost the only books that now generate much excitement among publishers are would-be bestsellers...

Bestsellers are not intrinsically bad. But they suck the air out of the system, and distort the delicate ecology of the book trade. The publishers make a pact. In exchange for turnover, they supply the bookshops with the kind of merchandise they can sell in large quantities. In this world, the little book - novel or memoir - struggles to make its way...

There is perhaps a sliver lining to these clouds of recession. Books remain comparatively cheap, and excellent value for money. Most paperbacks are approximately the price of a cinema ticket. Is it not possible that the downturn will purge the trade of vacuous bestsellers and bring the British reading public back to better books?'

Robert McCrum in the Observer