Recession hits the serials market

Liz Thomson and Nicholas Clee
News - Books 11 Dec 2008

With Sunday Telegraph serial buyer Robert Gwyn Palmer among the recent casualties in the drastic round of cuts at the Telegraph Group, and with a general contraction threatening similar moves at other newspapers, the serials market for 2009 is not likely to be buoyant. The policy at the Group is now to buy sparingly and cheaply, and to look to cover books with features instead. Buyers to whom BookBrunch spoke were in agreement that papers remained in the market for serialisations that might cost in the region of £25,000. They will also pay good money for headline-grabbing projects such as Tony Blair's forthcoming memoirs - 'but only if it's really interesting'. However, the mid-market - books worth £60,000- £80,000 - will struggle to find buyers, at least in the current climate.

Over the last couple of decades, the value of the serial market has been increasingly eroded, and the days when a newspaper would buddy up with a publisher when a book was acquired have all but gone - the Mail on Sunday did pitch in with Simon & Schuster for Lord Levy's memoirs last year, though the deal didn't exactly break the bank. Publishers can no longer look to newspapers to underwrite the cost of large advances, in part because newspapers have no wish to tie up money in a project that is a year or two distant and that may turn out to be disappointing.
Nevertheless, there is something paradoxical about the current situation, for at a time of cuts in staffing, serials and extracts can be a cost-effective way of filling pages. 'The problem is,' said one former newspaperman to whom BookBrunch spoke, 'that buying serial feels rather like going out to dinner when you could cook in, even though it's possible to pay diddly-squat for some books.'
The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Sunday Times have always been the heaviest buyers of serial, often for high prices. Now, the spending is more sober. 'I'm still buying - but only at the right price,' said Marilyn Warnick, who buys for the Mail on Sunday. And if the price isn't right, she and her colleagues find it more expedient to use publication as a peg to write a piece of their own. Another option is to invite authors to write features. 'But when I offered £1,200 to a publisher recently I was told it wasn't enough, though it was a pound a word for heaven's sake.' In the end, the offer was accepted. Warnick pointed out that a free CD or DVD is now a better way of adding readers to the paper than serial.
The Daily Mail once had the annoying habit of buying serial rights and not running the extracts. That policy had changed, said Literary Editor Sandra Parsons. 'When I arrived here [earlier this year] I made a point of checking, and I found three serials over the previous 12 months that we had not run - and I did manage to find space for one of them.'
The Mail continues to take the view that newsworthy books are a valuable way of attracting readers. 'Our appetite for books has not diminished - it's increased,' Parsons said. 'But we are definitely paying less than we once did.'

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