The title of this talk is, "Do We Need Publishers Any More?". I was going to call it "Thank Christ We Don't Need Bloody Publishers Any More" – but I felt that sounded too partisan.
Relationships between writers and publishers are of course very strange and change all the time, rather like a see-saw.
I remember my first meeting at Walker Books. The first question they asked me – and I swear this is true – was what mug would I like my tea in: the one with the teddy bear, the tennis racket or the pink one with the flower? And when I left the building, they asked me if I'd be OK taking the tube on my own. I was 33. I was married with a child. But they clearly saw me as some sort of demented child myself.
Cut forward 20 years: I've grown up, and they're nervous of me. There's Alex Rider. I've created a brand. Walker also resent me ever so slightly because now I'm the one with the SMA powder and the changing table. To a certain extent, they need me and that's probably tricky for a publisher who might find life so much easier without writers.
Meanwhile, across the river, I have my adult publisher, Orion – and they also have problems with me. Relations between us have been strained ever since they published my Sherlock Holmes novel, The Mouse of Slick, with no fewer than 35 proof-reading errors. Their proof-reader tried to kill herself. She shot herself with a gnu. Even so, we're doing another book together … a story of murder, suspicion and revenge.
But the truth is, I have other options.
Everywhere, publishers are being squeezed out. In 2010 it was Andrew Wylie with his Odyssey Editions, "cutting publishing houses out of the future" as the Guardian put it. Then came Sonia Land selling 100 Catherine Cookson titles directly to Amazon, bypassing Transworld and Simon & Schuster. The Ian Fleming estate shafted – I'm sorry, I mean excluded – Penguin in promoting digital rights in Bond. And of course there's Bedford Square Books and Ed Victor which published six backlist titles – "for the fun of it", he said – last year but whose fun extended to the exclusive deal they struck with Tesco this very month, selling a new novel, Dead Rich by Louise Fennell. Bedford Square, by the way, will apparently give me royalties of 50% … and every little helps.
I could, of course, go it alone. I could self-publish with unbound.co.uk as Terry Jones did last year. "Traditional publishing is in the doldrums, it's collapsing," said Terry, who turned 70 on the first day of this month and I very much hope he's neither.
I could upload the new Apple iBooks Author software which will allow anyone to produce high-quality fiction. High-quality print, paper and covers, anyway. It's true that Apple have cannily demanded 30% of all profits and you can only sell your books through Apple stores, meaning that effectively they own you. But 70% is still tempting. Amazon is offering the same deal with their Digital Text Platform and I'm not saying anything bad about them in case they remove the BUY button from Alex Rider – as they did with all Macmillan books two years ago. That's a glimpse of the world we're now entering.
How much power do publishers actually have? It's not just the ebooks that are in question. The supermarkets and the discount sellers are elbowing their way in on almost everything: pricing, cover design, age banding and even titles. Some might say that publishing houses are beginning to look about as desirable as the pre-fabs we're featuring in the next series of Foyle's War.
So do we need them any more?
I asked my own publisher, Jane Winterbotham, why I needed her and she came straight back with the reply. She said she'd call me next Tuesday. When she did finally ring me, she suggested that without her, I would miss "all the peripherals". These were: the promotion, the marketing, the editing and the advance.
Well, let's forget the marketing and the advance for a minute, because the funny thing is that when I actually needed them, at the start of my career, that was when they were in short supply. And as for the promotion, when you've sat through three Alex Rider lookalikes break-dancing in a dark and smoky rum bar next to a launderette in Kensington High Street, you might consider complete anonymity the better option. But editing does strike a chord. Jane is a brilliant editor and although we may disagree about some things – such as levels of violence (I disagree with her violently) – she's normally right. It's also worth mentioning that without Walker, Alex Rider would never have seen the light of day and I still remember my first editor, Wendy Boase, with great fondness and gratitude.
Which leads me to the question – how good are self-published books? Or, more to the point, does the absence of a professional editor make itself known? To answer that, I actually read a self-published novel – well, part of one. Actually, one paragraph. And here it is. The book in question is by a leading self-published writer who boasts very impressive sales. But as some might think it bad form for one writer to comment on another in public, I'm not going to tell you the title and I have also changed the characters' names.
Detective Inspector Jones was Henry's immediate superior and had been promoted at the same as he had. He had always got on well with him when they had been in more junior roles. He was a decent guy but perhaps just a bit too nice. He was about as normal a bloke as you could ever meet, one of those people whose descriptions you always hated when you were taking statements from a witness. He was average height and weight, with sensible, short black hair and always wore regular unassuming clothes. He didn't wear glasses or sport any distinguishing scars or facial hair. Even his voice was exactly as you would expect. In fact the only thing not really regulation about DI Jones was that he had what most officers didn't seem to: a proper family life.
You don't need to be able to string a sentence together in a way that is elegant or even vaguely meaningful to produce a bestseller – as Dan Brown has demonstrated time and again. But it strikes me that this extract is a bit ... well, just because it's full of policemen, does it have to be so ploddy?
Had Jane got her hands on this, she might have suggested that DI Jones was not Henry's immediate superior and had been promoted at the same time as he had – but that Jones was his immediate superior and the two of them had been promoted at the same time. That would have nipped out that repeated "he had, he had" in the second line and she might have drawn the writer's attention to the three following sentences which all begin "he was, he was, he was". I know she'd have been unhappy with those three appearances of the word "always" and she would certainly have said that DI Jones was of average height and weight. That sentence about statements and witnesses might have struck her as a touch garbled. Jane is notoriously pedantic and might have asked is it possible to sport a scar? And having decent, nice, normal, average, sensible, unassuming, undistinguished, exactly as you'd expect and regulation in the same eight lines, she might say, could just possibly be seen as over-egging it.
I'm sure there are some very good self-published books out there and this may well be one of them – anyway, who am I to say? - but my feeling is that in some indefinable way, having a publisher raises the bar. "What do they do if the writer delivers a damp squib?" asked Sam Jordison, a Guardian journalist, reviewing two books put out by Unbound. "On the evidence, they'll publish it anyway." Well, of course they will. And that's true for Apple and Amazon too. After all, they only need one hit to pay for all the rest.
Publishers do, I think, provide an imprimatur, a sort of quality control. I could also talk about tradition. It's been almost 600 years since Johannes Gutenberg produced the first printed books, and although Ars Minor, the excellent Latin primer by Aelius Donatus, has now dropped out of the bestseller lists, I like being part of that tradition. I don't like being what Apple calls "talent". I'm an author. And I write books, not "content".
I was recently asked to join the management committee of the Society of Authors but sadly felt unable to continue with them – and one of the reasons was that it seemed to me that they saw the publishers too much as the enemy of authors. Us vs them. Them scalping us. I don't think that's true. I see us as being very much connected in a fast-changing market where the values we most share could be the first to be thrown out of the window. Am I mad to think that if publishers were a little less interested in story, character, style, originality, design, typography, literacy, good grammar, education, enlightenment – and a little more interested in making money, they might have fewer problems? But is that not also, at the end of the day, something to celebrate?
And if I may say so, it may be that traditional publishers have less to fear from the digital revolution than they think. Perhaps they should embrace it. I'd love, for example, to write a murder mystery where you could actually tap on a bit of dialogue you mistrusted and discover that the character was telling a lie. Where the reader actually had to become a detective and where the last chapter, the reveal, had to be earned. Or how about a book with different points of view, where you could choose which of the characters became the narrator? I believe someone is experimenting with added music and sound effects as part of the book. For me, the digital revolution offers fantastic opportunities – if you grab hold of them.
Five years from now, there may only be ebooks. Fifty years from now, people may not even read at all. But I'm glad I wrote what I did when I did. One of my favourite authors, George Orwell, said this:All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon which one can neither resist nor understand…
I think that's very true, but I think it's also true of publishers. Are we in intensive care? I don't know. But if we are, I'm strangely relieved that we're there together.