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Publishers' acquisitions slow to a trickle

21 June 2010

An article in a recent edition of the Bookseller has highlighted the ongoing pressure on acquisitions in publishing houses, which has now become acute.

Helen Garnons-Williams, Bloomsbury fiction editorial director said: 'Our entire business is based on confidence, whether among the publishers or the agents, and pretty much everyone is wobbling because no one knows what will sell.' Auctions have often faltered because the recession is causing a massive loss of confidence and publishers are becoming increasingly risk-averse.

Everyone concerned has become too focused on playing it safe. The Bookseller reported that one unnamed trade insider had said that agents should take some blame for lacklustre submissions. 'Over the last 12 months and longer, agents have been steering writers to write in a particular genre. They are being directed to fill a gap in the market rather than writing the book they want to write. But the novels that work are those written with no interference, those which are different and new...that's why publishing is a game of risk, not a science.'

Although unpublished writers complain about the difficulties they are experiencing in finding an agent to take them on, agents know that in this situation they have to be very cautious about taking on new authors. If they can't sell them, then they will have invested their time and a proportion of the overhead costs of running the agency without making any return.

The backlist, which used to be a solid source of income for any agency with an established list, is now faltering. The midlist, mentioned above, has become a graveyard, and one of the saddest things is the number of authors who have published solidly, if not spectacularly, over the years and made a modest living but now find that their publishers don't want to continue with them. Even worse, their agents may cut them loose and then it is very hard for them to find another agent and resume their writing career.

This spring has seen some of the worst sales figures for some time, at a time when the book trade was supposed to be coming out of recession, with May in particular proving a disaster. The auctions do still go on in a reduced fashion, but it is the mid-list which is suffering. No-one wants to consider taking on an author who will need to build his or her audience and improve their craft over a number of novels - and thus a number of years. But most authors cannot produce a bestseller first time out, even though that is effectively what the trade is looking for.

Behind the scenes, the publishers' lists have already been cut radically and may well be cut again. Contracts are mostly not cancelled but books are postponed to a future year, meaning that editors already have a full schedule and effectively stop buying until they have caught up with themselves. It's a difficult situation all round and only improved sales are likely to do much to remedy it. In the meantime, if you have a completed manuscript and think it is ready for publication, it is worth putting some serious time into considering other options, such as self-publishing.