Damp Dishcloth on Empty PlatesPosted: April 10, 2014
‘Empty Plates Tomorrow?’ a book I wrote that was published in 2007, needs updating. Searching for information on likely costs is a depressing exercise. Too many books, too few readers. In the USA, only about 5% of non-fiction books sell over 5,000 copies. The USA’s population is five times larger than the UK’s, so on that basis we can expect 5% of non-fiction books to sell at least 1,000 copies and 95% to sell fewer. Publishers in the UK held 4.2 million titles in stock in 2011, and in 2012 they published 170,267 new titles. That’s a lot of choice.
Given the work, and costs, involved in writing a non-fiction book, can it be justified in return for selling a few hundred copies at a tenner each? The logical answer is no. Maybe it’s like buying a lottery ticket – there are heavy odds against winning, but that doesn’t stop people gambling.
The original publisher of ‘Empty Plates Tomorrow’ – a print-on-demand house — has been taken over. I thought they were a British company – they had offices here – and was surprised to discover that they were in fact Canadian. The new owners are in the USA. They phone quite regularly wanting me to promote the book, but the whole text needs revision, so I say no. Stay with this publisher for a new book? Distributing a short-run book from the USA doesn’t really accord with my arguments in favour of localism.
Find a different publisher to take on the title? That works if you are a celebrity, maybe, but I’m not a known name, and therefore of zero interest to a big publisher, in fact to any commercial publisher. These days, publishers of all sizes expect authors to do most of their book promotion work themselves. Publishing has become a branch of showbiz, with readings and signings and personal appearances, and this favours those already well-known over newcomers.
‘Empty Plates Tomorrow?’, about the risks of future food (and energy) shortages, was regarded by several journalists as too apocalyptic at the time, yet the trends it highlighted are now widely accepted. Water shortages, environmental destruction, climate change, resource wars, we have them all. Dilemma – either forget about an update and leave the arena to the big names like George Monbiot and Rob Hopkins, or take the risk of financing a proper book myself, or publish online only?
The paradox of the situation is that the explosion in publishing arising from cheap digital media seems to be narrowing the range of voices which can be heard above all the background noise, including the loud choruses of advertising. Acceptance of advertising is the trade-off we make to access information cheaply, but our quest for ‘free’ data means that we are more dependent than is sensible on sources that are subsidised in some way, and the subsidisers inevitably have agendas of their own. Often that agenda includes obscuring uncomfortable truths.
More free data, but less valuable information.
Pat Dodd Racher
 B J Gallagher, writing in the Huffington Post, 5th April 2012.
 Federation of European Publishers, 29th November 2012.
 UK Book Publishing Industry in Statistics 2012, the Publishers Association.