Conference 2001: Edinburgh

Page owner: Conference director

Whitcombe Lecture

The eternal triangle:

Andrew Franklin, Profile Books

Summarized by Susan Milligan

What is happening to the book trade and reading habits? This year's Whitcombe lecturer looked at the question in terms of the 'eternal triangle' of reader, publisher and writer. The subject at issue is the cultural and economic, rather than the technical, changes in publishing.

Are there as many readers as there used to be, and are they reading as much? Library use shows a steady decline in borrowings, of 1–2% each year. Libraries are used increasingly for reference and research rather than for reading and borrowing. 'Committed reading', as opposed to light holiday reading and the like, is a minority activity. Most people 'never have time to read'.

When they do, what are they reading? Booktrack is a quarterly record of the top 5,000 (purchased) titles. Of these, one-third is fiction; of the remaining two-thirds, half are reference books and gifts. Women read more fiction than men, and the overwhelming majority of purchases (in the UK, anyway) are paperbacks.

One of the most marked changes in publishing is the increasing proportion of new books and the declining back list. The back list has always been profitable, and this shift has put great financial pressure on publishers. The change can perhaps be seen as part of a wider cultural trend of newness, the 'three-minute culture'.

Are we buying more books than we used to? This is hard to measure. Book sales are increasing by 2% per annum, and the UK book trade is worth £2 billion annually. But it is growing more slowly than expenditure on other leisure activities.

Readers are the consumers, and what they read is determined by publishers. Over the last ten years, the publishing industry has become global. Four or five large companies now dominate in each market sector. Gone are the days of the gentlemen's club; today's industry has been professionalized and streamlined. There is increasing demand for profit, and an apparent short-termism of the market.

The constant squeeze on prices and the need to increase profit margins lead to cost-cutting, especially in the copyediting side of the business, with more reliance on freelancers. There is yet more pressure to come in this area, with an inevitable erosion of standards.

The publishers, aiming to increase their annual output by 5–10%, are using technological innovations to produce books more cheaply. They concentrate most of their energies on best-sellers, conscious that the difference between No. 1 and, say, No. 20 on the list is enormous. The winner-takes-all mentality means that, even with a growing turnover, there will be a small number of names benefiting. Best-sellers are of huge importance for profit. The fixed costs in publishing are high, and remain high no matter how many books are sold, but if a huge increase in sales can be generated, gigantic profits can be made.

Trends in the best-seller market are by now familiar, with a high proportion of titles from the US, many TV tie-ins and an obsession with youth culture. We are becoming used to the marginalization of difficult or minority interests.

How does this apparent dumbing down affect the third side of the triangle, the writers? Massive rewards at the top mean diminished returns for everyone else. It is not an exaggeration to speak of an underclass of struggling writers. No major publisher now takes on authors from their slush pile; authors have to use agents. There are now fewer second chances for authors. They must go for the big prize from the outset: there is little opportunity to build a career from small beginnings. This is a discouraging trend for authors and one that many in the publishing business are sorry to see.

There are, however, some encouraging signs. Best-seller lists are buoyant, and include some very fine books. There are good literary bookshops in every city, and a democracy of choice on the internet, with all books represented as equal and having an equal chance. There is still valuable status attached to books, especially to worthwhile books. It is still a great privilege and pleasure to work with books, and we have a duty to work in such a way as to prevent the pressures leading to dumbing down.

A feature new to the conference this year was the mini-lecture. They were, as our first reporter put it, 'not too daunting for the presenter and not long enough to send the audience to sleep or to the bar'.

Editing and identity – the genesis of a literary magazine:

Jennie Renton, Scottish Book Collector

Summarized by Helen Macdonald

Jennie Renton, editor, publisher, proprietor and all-round dogsbody, described the confinement, parturition and upbringing of Scottish Book Collector, from being a twinkle in its mother's eye through recalcitrant teenagehood to adult maturity.

Jennie, whose previous career was in second-hand bookselling, described the middle-of-the-night Eureka moment in 1987 when she was inspired to launch a magazine on books and bookselling. Surprisingly, it still seemed like a good idea in the morning, and, in August that year, the first edition was published. Funded initially by a loan of £3000, enough to buy a computer and leave working capital of £450, the magazine is now supported by a grant from the Scottish Arts Council.

Jennie related how, for the first few years, she was so grateful to contributors for providing copy that she was too inhibited to edit any of it. This led to a somewhat non-cohesive product: librarians, academics and historians all had their own language, and despite instructions to the contrary, many contributors insisted on writing in the first person rather than the third.

As she gained confidence, however, she developed a house style and soon learned to let rip with a red pen. In addition, her concept of the magazine as a whole and what it should include gradually crystallized so that the disparate elements began to come together. By 1997, the magazine included sections on books for sale and wanted, a catalogue review and personal pieces by writers tied in with publication of a book, as well as interviews with authors.

Fourteen years on, Scottish Book Collector still operates on a very tight budget, to the extent that Jennie still delivers copies by hand to subscribers in Edinburgh. But, with a small band of helpers, she has cut the apron stings and the bairn has fled the nest!

It's a scream:

John McLellan, editor, Edinburgh Evening News

Summarized by Helen Macdonald

John McLellan, editor of the Edinburgh Evening News, gave us an insight into newspaper production. The talk started on a serious note as John described journalists' response to the events of 11 September.

As the tragic events unfolded, the challenge for evening newspapers was to decide when to go ahead with publication without becoming out of date. In the case of the Edinburgh Evening News, a late special was put out at 3.40pm, and sales of the paper that day were up 7.5% compared with the previous week. This pattern was repeated over the next few days, showing that, in the case of major news events, there is still a thirst for the in-depth analysis that can best be provided by newspapers.

Unfortunately for newspaper editors and proprietors, even massive news stories have a short shelf life. John went on to report and explain the reasons for the demise of many local papers. In the 1960s, there were few other sources of news. Most people travelled to and from work by public transport, and needed something to read on the way home. Now, evening papers are battling against falling circulation, and most major towns have only one evening paper. Lacking the firepower of the morning nationals in terms of marketing but not being community newspapers either, many evening papers are facing an uphill struggle.

In the case of the Edinburgh Evening News, this battle has been reflected by the changing face of the newspaper itself. Over the past decade, it has changed from broadsheet to tabloid and has undergone numerous redesigns. It is now firmly targeted at the middle market. John believes that the strength of a local evening paper is delivering analysis of issues relevant to the local community.

Changing anatomy? The illustrator and Gray:

Julie Merrick

Summarized by Helen Macdonald

Julie Merrick, who worked as a freelancer on Gray's Anatomy, described the evolution of anatomical illustration in the medical student's bible. The first edition of this celebrated work, edited by Henry Gray, was published in 1858. The need for such a detailed anatomical textbook was prompted by the development of anaesthesia, which allowed surgeons to carry out operations that were more complex than hitherto.

The first line drawings, in black and white, were provided by H van Dyck Carter. Later, colour washes were applied, and full colour was introduced in the 1930s. The first photographs appeared in 1883 and the first radiographs in 1938. In addition, as the book became increasingly successful, the number of illustrations progressively increased from several hundred to more than 1,000 in the current edition.

An oft-debated question is whether anatomy changes and why there should be a need for new editions of an anatomical textbook. One reason is that modern scanning techniques continue to become more sophisticated and to reveal a new level of detail that makes older illustrations unacceptable.

In many cases, the role of the illustrations is to show the surgeon what to cut and sew. The challenge is to portray in two dimensions the moving three-dimensional structures of the human body. In this, both line and halftone illustrations have a place: photographs that show the reader the actuality of the human anatomy are used sparingly; the edited versions of the artist's drawings provide the interpretation.

Make friends with your typesetter:

David MacDonald, Prepress Projects

Summarized by Jennifer Gibb

David MacDonald of Prepress Projects in Perth surprised some of us who had not even realized that we had a typesetter. He foresees a narrowing of the gap between editing and typesetting. You want to be easy to do business with, so it will become very important that you keep the typesetter happy.

It will be essential to understand terms and constraints so that you can deliver copy more quickly, with fewer errors, at lower cost. If your clients do not allow editors to talk to typesetters, explain the economic benefits of your being in direct contact with them and they may relent. As a typesetter, David is sometimes asked to comment on how easy a manuscript was to set after it had been copyedited, so your reputation could be enhanced. Or the reverse!

The single best thing you can do on screen is to master the styling technology. A document already well-styled will almost typeset itself and so cut down on setting time. As well as headings and fonts, consider the use of colour for tagging tables and figures, or anything you may want to point out to the typesetter.

Then give clear explanations of what you want done to both client and typesetter. Don't be afraid of referring the typesetter back to the hard copy (enclose a photocopy of the original page), and always remember that English may not be his or her first language. This sounds time-consuming but consider how much will be saved at the typesetting stage on a 100-hour project if you take a couple of hours at the end to make a careful report.

Start being kind to your typesetter now, for David is confident that, within four years, it will become a common requirement.

The euro – now in business:

Caroline Boyle, national organizer, Scotland in Europe

Summarized by Jennifer Gibb

Although Caroline Boyle, national organizer for Scotland in Europe, represents a pro-Europe campaign, she spoke only about the implications for us of economic monetary union, whether or not we join.

The climate of hostility to it in Britain has made discussion difficult, but the final stage of the introduction of the euro, during which dual circulation of currencies will be allowed, began on 1 January 2001. It will now be used for all transactions in the 12 'in' countries. (The three that are not – Denmark, Sweden and the UK — are known as the 'pre-ins'!)

There are 300 million people in the Eurozone who will be using the common currency, all able to compare prices of everything very easily. If you have clients in the Eurozone, Caroline suggested asking your bank for advice, but unless you make payments as well as receive income in euro, you will not need a euro bank account.

If you think it might give you a competitive edge to trade in euro and are capable of doing so, you could use the 'Trading in Euro' symbol on your stationery (one of the conditions is to undertake not to make any surcharge for handling payments in euro). There is more information on the Euro Info Centre website.

In answer to questions, Caroline said that European clients will be able to insist on paying in euro, and yes, banks will charge for conversion.