Feature Explanatory tomes, cookery, fantasy - what do people pick up when the chips are down?
A loss for words?
Authors sometimes complain that the publishing industry only makes a fuss over the young, photogenic and superficial. The star of this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, however, could not be further from it. Karl Marx, according to his German publisher, is enjoying a new-found popularity. Sales of Das Kapital are surging as the global financial crisis inspires people to reassess the capitalist system.
Newspapers may have found the story irresistible, but the bourgeoisie need not yet run for the hills. The 1867 treatise on political economy may have sold three times as well this year as last, but the chances of its new readership getting much past the introduction are about as likely as a first-time buyer being handed a mortgage. Marx aside, the economic downturn is inevitably being reflected in our reading choices. With further strife ahead, it's too early to make any meaningful statements about its impact, but the books we buy reveal what our thoughts turn to when the chips are down.
Firstly, though, how is the publishing industry bearing up as a whole? The perceived wisdom is that books are recession-resilient, and so far there has been little evidence to contradict it. Visitor numbers at Frankfurt, the industry's most important trade event, were up 5.6 per cent in 2007. The fair's director, Juergen Boos, described the atmosphere as "optimistic, lively and full of energy". Industry experts broadly agree with the positive outlook.
"The thing about books in general is that in the boom years they don't grow as fast as anything else, but in the bust years they don't fall as fast," says Joel Rickett, the editorial director of Viking. "Other entertainment industries like music and film fluctuate wildly, but books are in a relatively healthy position. "Historically, people have turned to books during recession because they represent fantastic value for money. If you're going to the cinema less, you might go to bed early and curl up with a good book. Books represent a fantastic return on investment in terms of hours of enjoyment."
Jonathan Lloyd, the CEO of the UK-based Curtis Brown literary agency, warns that the full impact is yet to be felt. "The general consensus is that life may change a bit in the early months of next year, when bills come in." In the rest of the western world, the feeling is similar. Tina Jones of the Association of American Publishers has compared the growth rate of publishing over the past decade. "It's stayed on par," she says. "Figures for this August report growth as well. But, of course, it doesn't take into account what has happened in the past few weeks."
In Australia, the industry is in "relatively good health", according to Henry Rosenbloom, the founder of the Melbourne-based publisher Scribe. Elsewhere, reports are mixed. India, which is to be the market focus of next year's London Book Fair, has experienced tremendous growth over the past few years and does not yet seem to have been affected by the crisis, while in Japan the industry has been in decline for the past 11 years.
Meanwhile, the downturn has yet to impact publishers in the Arab world, according to Claudia Kaiser, the general manager of KITAB, a joint venture company between the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Frankfurt Book Fair. "We don't feel it yet in Abu Dhabi, and that's true for other Arab publishers as well." This is, she says, because publishing is not a major industry in the UAE, although KITAB, which also organises the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, is looking to change that.
So, what do people want to read when the world is in the red? The most obvious new areas of interest are explanations of what has happened, and advice on what to do with the little money they have left. Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores have repositioned their personal finance sections to the front of the stores, and books such as George Soros' The New Paradigm for Financial Markets are doing a brisk trade.
Hollis Heimbouch, the vice president and publisher at Collins Business, says, "In terms of what's selling, it's back to basic, tried and true evergreen subjects like business and management." In the pipeline is What Would Google Do?, "a manual for survival" based on the Google model. Lloyd, though, reckons that this market will be limited. "I think that one Freakonomics-type book will come out that explains things, and that everyone will read. But the majority of people don't want to know, and don't understand."
Then there are the fortuitously timed books already out, such as Alice Shroeder's biography of Warren Buffet, The Snowball. "That sort of book would normally be pushed only in the America," says Rickett, "but it's also selling phenomenally well in the UK." At the other end of the timing spectrum is Amit Chatwani's Damn, It Feels Good to be a Banker, which was published in August. "I'm hoping that people will look at it as a sort of historical document, a parody of a world that existed until basically a moment after it came out," Chatwani says.
More desirable are insiders' accounts of how we got into this mess. At Frankfurt, Lloyd estimates he saw 50 proposals from City and Wall Street experts. Rickett's new acquisitions include Binge Trading by the former stockbroker Seth Freedman and The Greatest Trade Ever, an account of how John Paulson made $15 billion on the housing bubble. "Rather than dry explanatory tomes, just retreading events, they have compelling personal elements," Rickett says.
In the US, Collins is excited about Charlie Gasparino's The Sellout, the inside story of Bear Sterns, which they hope will emulate the success of Barbarians at the Gate, the 1990 bestseller about the takeover of RJR Nabisco. Anthony Forbes-Watson, the managing director of Pan Macmillan, meanwhile, is on the lookout for good riches-to-rags stories. "It'll be a substitute for misery memoirs: stories of poor unfortunate people who have lost all their money but have found it more life-enhancing to eat grass," he says. He also sees a market for "funny books that take a rather Olympian perspective, that see us struggling like ants in a conspiracy of greed".
Moving away from the eye of the storm, guides on how to get by on peanuts are in demand. One of the big releases this month is The Thrift Book: Live Well and Spend Less by India Knight, the Sunday Times journalist who previously wrote about the joys of consumerism in The Shops. Also doing well is Kath Kelly's self-explanatory How I Lived for a Year on Just a Pound a Day (it should be noted that the author's rent and bills were exempt from the calculations). Waterstones has reported a surge of interest in guides on keeping chickens, and Penguin has hastily reissued the 1941 wartime manual, Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps from their back catalogue.
Cookery books, too, inevitably do well in a recession. Delia Smith's How To Cook was first published in 1989, and she has just released a new edition of her 1997 guide Frugal Food. The Manual of Workhouse Cookery, first published in 1901, is also being reissued. It includes a recipe for gruel. There will always be those, however, who aren't worrying where their next tin of chickpeas is coming from. Call it aspiration or masochism, but our interest in the lives of the filthy rich tends to increase as our current accounts dwindle.
"There's a vicarious thrill in reading about people with literally no money worries at all," says Rickett. "Looking back at past recessions, the non-fiction books that sold well were about celebrity and royalty." In the absence of Princess Diana and The Queen Mother (both best-selling biographies of the 1990s), we'll have to make do with the current crop of comedian biographies, which might at least give us a much-needed laugh.
Forbes-Watson thinks that what people really want are meaty, narrative-driven novels. "Traditionally, Christmas is a time when comedians and TV celebrities dominate, and fiction doesn't do so well, but I have a feeling that this year, really great, long fiction will reassert itself," he says. "People don't like change at times like this. They're risk-averse, they want to get stuck inside an all-consuming world when they're staying in bed all day. We don't want to get up for this world, really, do we?"
He cites Ken Follett's current bestseller, the 1,200 page medieval epic, World Without End. Rosenbloom, meanwhile, notes the popularity of fantasy sagas such as Brisingr and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series (when members of the public attended the Frankfurt Book Fair on its final weekend, a surprising number were dressed up as characters from the latter). Our need for escapism has also led to the rebirth of the racy romance, the first incarnation of which, headed by Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper, coincided with the 1980s recession.
"Britain was doing so well in the 1990s that you didn't need it in your fiction," says Wayne Brooks, the deputy publishing editor at Harper Collins. "But the world is such a bad place now, people are starting to want it again." The glossy new generation, with an updated noughties cast of Russian oligarchs, include Jo Rees' Platinum and Tasmina Perry's Guilty Pleasures. The romance publisher Mills and Boon, meanwhile, has reported this year as the most successful in its 100 year history. The publisher's spokesman, Digby Halsby, says romances are "recession-proof, as people seek joyous relief from the gloomy news headlines".
In Japan, Manga versions of the romances are hugely popular, as is a 1929 proletarian novel, Kani Kosen, which has struck a chord with the young unemployed. The publishers say that around 380,000 copies have been sold this year, compared with the usual 5,000. As for whether the crisis will produce any great literature of its own, we can but wait and see. Good art, of course, takes time to percolate: The Grapes of Wrath was published 10 years after the official start of the Great Depression. By the time the seminal credit crunch novel arrives, we'll all be experts in rabbit breeding, short-selling and the life and times of Warren Buffet. We may have even managed to make it to the end of Das Kapital.