Sunday, September 18, 2005


King Wottakar (the Second)

There's a fascinating piece by Tim Adams in today's Guardian ruminating over the allegedly overpowering influence of Scott Pack, the head buyer for the Waterstone's chain in Britain. I rather wished they'd included an actual interview with Pack so that the man could speak for himself a bit more, but in any case the article gives an interesting glimpse into the anxieties of British authors and publishers:

I was talking to a few publishers in London about an idea I'd had for a book, partly, pointedly, about mid-life underachievement. Mostly, they liked the idea, but a single name seemed to dog my progress. 'You have to understand,' they said, 'that whatever we think of it, we have to sell it to Scott Pack.' Or: 'I think Scott Pack is quite down on this kind of thing at the moment.' When I asked around I discovered it wasn't just me. Scott Pack was, it seemed, down on a few of my friends' ideas, too.

The words 'authors' and 'disgruntled' almost always share the same sentence, but still, the more writers I spoke to who had books out, or books about to be published, the more Pack's name came up. Publishers spoke to me darkly of how Waterstone's these days made them pay 'ludicrous figures' on top of the usual discounts to be involved in promotions, and then, if a promotion failed, had their books returned to them. Pack was, I was told, rejecting cover designs, telling editors their jobs. One sent me a rather draconian memo that Pack had circulated to his bookstore managers outlining the criteria on which a book could be 'A-listed' and suggesting extreme caution to a manager seeking to act on his or her own initiative. Another told me that it was rumoured that Pack was about to stop pushing history books because 'history did not sell'. And so on. Not one publisher or author would speak to me about Pack on the record, however, since it would be, one suggested - publishers being at least as paranoid as writers - like 'a suicide note' for his list of authors....

To a large degree, 'Scott Pack' has simply become shorthand for the ways in which bookselling has changed since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, which fixed book prices, a decade ago. Much that interested parties feared would result from that change has now come to pass. Publishers are held to ever tighter margins: for some Christmas promotions, I was told, Waterstone's is demanding 65-70 per cent discount on all titles, in addition to contributions of £30,000 or more towards marketing costs for each promoted book. Independent publishers, who have generally spent far less than that amount on an advance to their author, are particularly reluctant to take the risk. When you see bigger and bigger piles of fewer and fewer books in your shops this is the reason why.
A quick search revealed that, though he has avoided attention until relatively recently, this is not the first time that Pack has been vivisected by the British press. In the New Statesman on August 22nd, Nick Cohen writes:

The most powerful man in the literary world is not the chairman of the Man Booker jury who hands out the prizes. Nor is it a great novelist who sets the intellectual fashion. It is a bull-necked, shaven-headed former pop music salesman who cares little for literary London. The feeling is reciprocated in spades. Literary London fears Scott Pack. "The trade is completely out of balance," said a leading agent. "Authors and publishers are being pummelled."

"We call him 'Pot Snack'," said another, "because he's so cheap and tasteless." The publishing world whispers the insults from behind the coward's cloak of anonymity. No one wants to offend Pack. He is too powerful....

As Pack explained a few days before this year's Man Booker list was published, airy-fairy literary prizes do not impress him. He was expecting his phone to be hot with publishers asking him if he wanted to buy more copies of their longlisted book. "I don't want to rain on anyone's parade - getting longlisted for the Man Booker Prize is rightly an exciting event for author and publisher alike - but our answer is almost certainly a 'no' . . . The one thing it does not do is sell books. Not many anyway. I make no apologies for that statement. I am here to give the retailer's perspective, after all."
The hostile press that Pack and his frosty pronouncements have been getting lately is presumably due to all the scrutiny the likely Waterstone's / Ottakar merger is generating. But the rest of Cohen's New Statesman article is, I think, particularly intriguing in its analysis of the broader situation. That Pack is right when he says that TV shows sell books but the Booker does not, I hardly doubt: he has the sales figures in front of him, after all. But as Cohen points out, the more downmarket a bookstore goes, the more -- over the long term -- it becomes vunerable to superstores and supermarkets like Tesco coming along and eating its lunch. According to a August 21st piece in the Daily Telegraph, "Not So Wizard For Waterstone's," that may have already happened with the latest Harry Potter release....

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