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'The golden age'

21 October 2002

In an erudite and thoughtful article originally written for Prospect magazine, Toby Mundy, the publisher and MD of Atlantic Books in the UK, has posed challenging questions about publishing and its future. This article is so important that we believe it should be presented as news.

Mundy's view is that: 'Doomsayers persist in the belief that the book world has been overrun by philistinism. They are wrong. Publishers can rejoice in unprecedented levels of both quality and quantity. We are living in a golden age of the book.' He points out that books have an importance disproportionate to their economic weight, as the carriers of ideas. The increasing conglomeratisation of the business is clear to see, as shown in the UK by this year's purchase of the ancient firm of John Murray by the newcomer Hodder Headline. But there is now a hugely increased amount of competition between bookselling chains, which often takes the form of price competition adversely affecting publishers' margins. Big publishers compete more too and the stakes are higher all round, with bigger advances and bigger marketing budgets meaning more focus on the 'big' books.

But the decline of the midlist, which has made it so hard for many writers to get published, has also been balanced by innovation in the smaller publishing houses. Mundy also points out that power has increasingly swung towards the big authors and their agents, so publishers, precisely because they now competing so fiercely with one another for market share, are no longer calling the shots in quite the same way that they used to. Against the accusations of 'dumbing-down', he points to the flowering of mass-appeal but serious non-fiction, particularly history and science, which are also now big business for publishers.

His conclusion is surprisingly encouraging: 'The future, it seems, belongs to writers, readers and entrepreneurs. There will be as many or as few masterpieces published as ever, but they will enter the world through proliferating channels. More publishers will exist and some of them will also be famous authors. For less well-known writers, making a living from the written word is likely to be hard, but no harder than it is now. From the industry point of view, as it sits on the tail-end of the longest economic boom in postwar history, all this seems somehow unimaginable. From the consumer's point of view, the golden age is set to continue. But for publishers, ordinary writers and booksellers, the next few years could be the last great days of publishing as we have known it since the 16th century.'