What is the future of the wine book? Or rather, whither wine book publishers? Life in the online age is tough for most publishers, and wine writers seem increasingly to be taking the initiative.
Allen Meadows, an American finance executive turned burgundy guru, aka Burghound, has just published his first book himself. Well, not exactly himself. In charge of just about everything except the 180,000 words in Pearl of the Côte, a handsome, fully illustrated 350-page monograph on the wines of Vosne-Romanée, was his wife Erica. What she had to do was “put together the entire team – and cover all the costs – featuring several artists, photographers (including taking one up in a helicopter for specific aerial views), mapmakers, book designers, copy editors, printing, computer programming for shopping cart and sales, indexing, book production manager, storage facilities, all fulfilment, etc”.
Or, as Meadows puts it, “self-publishing is not rocket science but it is still impressively complicated because of the huge myriad of details involved in taking a finished manuscript and turning it into a finished book. Then, even when you have a professional product, the marketing and fulfilment challenges are ultimately what make the difference between a successful and failed book project.”
He says that it was losing editorial control over the book that put him off the traditional publishing route, but selling a $59.99 book with no middlemen must have its own attractions – provided you can find your market. “No one should go down the self-publishing path thinking that it’s easy because it’s not,” he warns. “Aspiring self-publishers should think very carefully about this part of the process because even if they have written the best book ever, it can’t sell if no one knows about it.”
But the key to the likely commercial success of Pearl of the Côte is that just about every single potential buyer of the book is already mad about burgundy and highly likely to be a visitor, and probably a subscriber, to Meadows’ website. Thus, the Meadows have a direct route to their customers and owe nothing to retailers or publishers. Indeed, so confident are they of reaching their market themselves, they have not even bothered to have the book listed on Amazon.
Benjamin Lewin is another highly qualified author to have recently published his first wine book himself. His What Price Bordeaux? is listed on Amazon, perhaps because he does not have a wine-related website through which to sell this admirably thorough treatise on the wines of Bordeaux, which has apparently sold well enough in its first year to turn a profit. He says: “There are two general problems to conventional publishing. One is the general incompetence of the publishers: all they really know how to do is to publish more books following exactly the same model as in the past. The second is the way the cost of the book becomes enormously inflated by their overheads. Some of that overhead goes to necessary activities, such as editing, design and so on, but an author can find all those services, at much lower cost. The problem is bad for books done in black and white, but is greatly magnified if you want to do a four-colour book.”
Lewin, as the founding editor of Cell, a prominent biology journal, and author of several successful science books, is particularly well versed in the business of specialised publishing. Having recently qualified as a Master of Wine, he is about to publish his second wine book, Wine Myths and Reality.
“The big advantage of conventional publishers, and the main problem for anyone who wants to follow an alternative route, is the stranglehold of distribution. This is less powerful than it used to be, partly because there are distributors who will take on books that are self-published or published by small publishers, partly because of the rise of Amazon and other online retailers. But if you want to have your book represented in the big chains, it remains an issue. It can be almost as difficult to get a distributor who will handle the book, assuming you publish it yourself, and get it into the system, as to find a publisher.
“One problem of distribution,” he says, “is that the system has entirely failed to keep up with modern technology. Trade distribution is predicated on the assumption that publishing will be a slow process, lasting several months. We had bound books in less than six weeks after sending PDF files to the printer. We could have published in under three months, but had to slow the whole process to fit the distribution snail scale of six months because if publication preceded the big chains’ consideration, they wouldn’t take the book. The most difficult thing is getting good distribution, and related to that, deciding how many to print: too few and you deprive yourself of the market; print too many and, of course, you risk financial loss.”
His fellow Master of Wine Stephen Skelton, an English wine specialist, reckons he has overcome this problem, by using the services of Lulu.com, a website aimed specifically at self-publishers. His 170-page, large format, illustrated book Viticulture costs £3.64 per copy to print and he can buy any number from one upwards at exactly that price plus postage and sell them on to bookshops and vineyards at a trade price.
“If Lulu sell a copy – cover price £16.50 – then they keep 20 per cent of the difference between the cost and the cover price, which leaves me with about £10.50.” He has pursued a similar strategy for The UK Vineyards Guide. “There are no set-up costs as you do all the origination, formatting, proof-reading, cover etc, yourself.”
He has sold about 1,500 copies of Viticulture and 1,000 of The UK Vineyards Guide, which has brought him in about £8 a copy. “This is far more than I would have got from a publisher. And to change something – a new phone number or a typo just noticed – just requires you to alter the Word file, create a new PDF and download it. All new copies after that are changed.”
If all this sounds to an experienced author like a completely new world, it is hardly surprising. Today, there is just one conventional specialist English language wine book publisher on each side of the Atlantic: Mitchell Beazley, a subsidiary of Hachette, in London and the University of California Press in Berkeley. I should at this point disclose that Mitchell Beazley publishes The World Atlas of Wine, of which I am co-author with Hugh Johnson, and has managed to oversee the translation of the most recent edition into 13 languages, something that would be difficult for even the most ambitious self-publisher to accomplish.
More columns at www.ft.com/robinson