‘Form is temporary. Class is permanent.’ This saying, heard most often in my life in a cricketing context, came to mind today as I was helping to judge the BMS Seasonal Book Marketing Awards (a much more modest event than today’s Costa Book Awards, won by Andrew Miller’s novel ‘Pure‘).
One BMS entrant was the campaign celebrating the centenary of the birth of William Golding and, inevitably, his seminal novel ‘Lord of the Flies‘. I know not everyone likes the book but that black-and-white film and its mantra ‘Kill the Pig, Kill the Pig’ haunted me throughout my lonely, scary boarding school childhood.
The marketing idea was to invite children to design a new cover for the book. But the real delight was the opportunity to look back at the beautifully designed and wonderfully crafted covers that have graced ‘Lord of the Flies’ since it was published in 1954.
There can be no greater conjugation of literature and art than these.
The same observation can be applied to Gary Oldman’s performance, and today’s Oscar nomination, in the recent film of the book ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘. Of course, the book was reprinted alongside the film. But why not push Le Carré’s entire canon? What an opportunity to connect another class act to a whole new generation of readers!
In this digital age, ‘class is permanent’ applies to literature like never before. Virtually every book that has ever been published is available on the internet. And, while there is always room for new books, and the awards they attract, I do feel the book trade would benefit from dusting off the covers of the great works of literature and being more creative in promoting them to new audiences in new formats.
I wrote a column to this end which The Bookseller magazine published in 2007. If anything, because of technology, it is even more true today than it was then:
“At a family wedding last year, a cousin of mine from Washington DC told me that his favourite author is E. F. Benson. So last summer I read my first two Mapp and Lucia novels. They were first published in 1920 and 1922. But they were new to me.
More recently, a friend told me that his favourite books are by Brian Moore. So, as this friend has invested money in my company Lovereading, I thought I should read Moore. It was called Colour of Blood and was written in 1987. But it was new to me (and, thanks John, I loved reading it).
Then I read that Sebastian Faulks considers ‘Loving’ by Henry Green the best novel ever written in the English language. So I definitely thought I should read that – even though it was written in 1945.
I bought all of these books very easily. As we all know, virtually every book that has ever been published is available on the internet. There are even book price comparison sites to find the cheapest place to buy the one you want. No problem.
This is how people buy books. Someone tells them about a good book and then they go and buy it. Sometimes these people have names like Richard or Judy. Sometimes the word, especially if it’s Potter, gets round like wildfire and the book just takes off.
Yet the book trade doesn’t work like this. The book trade has things called ‘frontlist’ and ‘backlist’ titles. Unlike every other market I have worked in, the new books – the ones that are really newsworthy – are ‘promoted’ as three-for-twos or even sold at half price. The old products, the ones that you might have thought had passed their sell-by date, the ones that may even be out of copyright, are mostly sold at full price on the high street. It’s true – go to your nearest bookshop and see for yourself.
We all know about the effect of the major multiples on the book trade. But once you’ve been into your local bookshop, as requested above, pop into your nearest supermarket. Is the fresh, new crispy lettuce sold at half price with the older stuff still at full price? Of course not – that would be daft.
So there is massive potential value in ‘backlist’, and the best place for publishers to realise this value is on the internet. There are ways specialist bookshops could do it too.
But that is another story.”