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Wine books shrivel

13 Mar 2009 by Jancis Robinson

See also England 0, Belgium 1.

Drinks book publishing is in a parlous state if this year’s André Simon Awards are anything to go by. Named after the famous gastronome and patron of Hugh Johnson (who turned 70 on Wednesday and is seen on the left of this blurred old picture of him and Simon), these are the last surviving British awards for food and drink books, the Glenfiddich Awards having been wound up, or at least mothballed.

Last night at the Goring Hotel the drinks books assessor Peter Richards and food books assessor Ivan Day gave their verdicts on last year’s crop of books. Most tellingly, while Ivan Day had to read and evaluate 111 food books submitted, Peter Richards had to adjudicate over a mere 18 books. And it was perhaps significant that the shortlist of four drinks books included just one wine book – Charles Sullivan’s Napa Wine: A History from Mission Days to Present, which is hardly the most recent production.

The other shortlisted drinks books, incidentally, were Iain Gately’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, Taylor Clark’s first book Starbucked and, the winner, Ciderland by James Crowden. The winning drinks book is a lyrical, bucolic celebration of cider’s place in Britain with a heavy historical bias. All three of these books area rattlingly good reads, but neither Gately nor Clark is a specialist drinks writer. A sign of the times?

It was a good night for historians, however. The winning food book was the extremely scholarly Cooking and Dining in Medieval England by Peter Brears and published by Tom Jaine’s small imprint Prospect Books. Michel Roux’s classic how-to book Pastry was given a special award. There were no fewer than seven shortlisted food books, the others being A Day at El Bulli by Ferran Adria et al, Forgotten Fruits by Christopher Stocks, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, Bee Wilson’s Swindled about food scandals and Richard Corrigan’s Irish-influenced cookbook The Clatter of Forks and Spoons.

All rather gloomy for wine book publishing really. Is it because previously publlshed books weren't good enough? Because publishers are too cautious? Because of the growth of online comment about wine?  Any thoughts?


Stephen suggests that Lulu has made a pre tax net profit, if we consider production cost are flat, on his books over that last 18 months of £3,000. No profit is bad profit said someone however this is small. Publishers are a service of authors to the market, they are not crusaders,(like most wine retailers, unless you pay them they don't sell your wine and if your wine doesn't sell its your fault and they don't re order!). If publishers are, to invest in cost of goods, (as Waitrose would put it), they would like the goods to sell. Yes they will try and publish a title which if it takes off then they will re publish and so on. DavidS talks about how Biodynamics is sweeping across the growing wine world. Well i trudge the streets 3 days out of 7 around the world and i can assure you biodynamics is a long, long way off mainstream, even in the wine world. A recent survey in the USA showed that 7 out of 10 would be deterred rather than encouraged to buy a biodynamic wine and 6 out 10 people thought that all wine was organic! The fact is the publishers are not there to sell they are providing the service and wine books, except very few, such as the Atlas, and here Jancis could possibly tell us how many copies sold etc??, are a fringe subject so re prints even first prints are few,(just like Languedoc wines you get put in the "other" section). Billionaires Vinegar is a cracking read but i think that if you were in the car business it would not be so interesting. The Fourth Star recounting Daniel Bouluds return to the New york resto scene is excellent stuff but if you have no interest in food or restaurants its very marginal. Lulu is a great technological help for this kind of problem and i am looking forward to receiving news of new releases which i can buy directly from the author. Perhaps the English speaking wine writers should club together and have a web site/store where all their books are on offer? Instead of promoting one book they promote one site where all the books, published by Lulu, can be found.

24 Mar 2009 12:49 by Robert Eden

By the way, I should add that I have a copy of Stephen's UK Vineyards Guide and it looks extremely professionally published.

20 Mar 2009 16:08 by Jancis Robinson

Stephen Skelton MW has asked me to add these revealing comments of his about the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing: 'After winning the André Simon with “The Wines of Britain and Ireland” I asked the publishers, Faber and Faber, whether they might make something of it – gold stickers, a press release perhaps? They responded by saying” No – not interested”. About 18 months ago, I looked at the possibility of publishing via Printing On Demand (POD) and discovered the joys of Lulu ( who are one of a number of POD companies. The process is relatively easy. You write your book in Word (or something similar) with everything laid out, page numbers, title page etc exactly as you would like it, convert it to a PDF and download it onto a template provided. Complete it with a cover (you can either accept their basic design or design one yourself) and the job is done. Order one copy to make sure its OK, then assuming it is, you set a retail price and go live. To give some figures, I have just reformatted my first Lulu book “Viticulture” into a “Crown Quarto” size (189 mm x 246 mm - the same as the 1st edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine”) and for a 135 page, 77,000 word book, with black and white photos and full colour cover, their production cost is £3.76. When Lulu sell it via their website, they keep 20% of the difference between the production cost and the sales price (£16.50), leaving me with £10.19 or 62% of the cover price. Tell me another publisher that is that generous! If I order copies myself which I sell on, I get charged £3.76. The benefits of POD are: no stock, the ease of correction (spot a typo, take a better picture and you just change the Word doc and download a new PDF) and the returns to the author. The drawbacks: you still need to get your customers to visit a website. Having done one book this way, I published another - “UK Vineyards Guide” - which is selling steadily. This one is a slightly longer book (387 pages) and a smaller format (6” x 9”) and therefore costs more to produce as the cost is based upon page count, not physical size. The returns from this book are still acceptable though: I keep £8.99 from a £19.95 cover price (45%). Together I have sold around 1,200 copies of the two books in 18 months. Not world shattering, but a better return than the meagre advances most publishers want to give – that’s assuming you can find a publisher in the first place.'

17 Mar 2009 16:33 by Jancis Robinson

I think Monty's last comment "Publishers do know how to publish – but they don’t always know how to sell" is the pertinent one. I couldn't agree more. Why publishers don't invest the same amount of effort in selling a book as producing it always amazes me. My current experience is that with a few honourable exceptions like Tom Jaine's Prospect Books, publishers are becoming more and more conservative about the books they publish, sticking to 'celebrity authors' and subjects they know will sell. (Not wine, unfortunately) I am sure self-publishing will become more and more the norm

14 Mar 2009 08:55 by Fiona Beckett

I (rather idly) wonder who is directly benefiting from this trend to self-publishing and whether there are printers who specialise in dealing with authors rather than large publishing houses? The secretary of the Andre Simon Awards (Nick is a trustee) tells me that submissions from self publishers are most welcome later in the year, and that details can be had from

13 Mar 2009 16:43 by Jancis Robinson

The current state of UK wine book publishing is dismal and Mitchell Beazley, who worked so hard to corner (more or less) the market have really let the ball drop. So my forthcoming book on Burgundy is likely to be self published with the assistance of BBR. I have consulted several existing wine authors, all of whom recommended NOT using publishers!

13 Mar 2009 15:33 by Jasper Morris

BTW, Monty, when you do, can you please contact me through Jancis' access and let me know. I'll certainly buy a copy.

13 Mar 2009 14:20 by David Churchill

Monty, that you have to self-publish your update of your very fine (and frequently used by me) Biodynamic Wines book is a very sad state of affairs. Certainly, wine books such as Parker's Buyers Guide go quickly out of date (if for no other reason the vintages being trumpeted or lambasted sell out), but ones such as yours, though updates are always important, remain timely for quite sometime.

13 Mar 2009 14:19 by David Churchill

At precisely this juncture, for a publisher to assert that there is no interest in an updated version of one of the most important books written to introduce BIODYNAMIC viticulture, seems tantamount to suggesting that it was never worth publishing in the first place (which they did). While I'm as skeptical as I am fascinated by the biodynamic movement, there is no denying it is a wave sweeping across the wine growing world, and as such it would surely be hard to find a more fashionable or timely subject, nor one about which vintners and wine journalists alike find themselves fielding more questions from consumers.

13 Mar 2009 14:05 by David Schildknecht

I read with interest/sadness your piece on the André Simon drinks book awards. The most interesting (and saleable) recent drinks books have been narrative driven (ie Christy Campbell’s Phylloxera and the one on the "Jefferson" bottles whose title eludes, both cracking reads). Wine guide books go rapidly out of date, unlike food/recipe books, and so are seen as poor investments unless you have a brand (eg HJ Pocket Wine Guide; World Atlas of Wine). Tom Bromley of Portico who published my Chateau Monty TV-book tie-in recently told me (and I quote) “I'm beginning to think that with ebooks, self-publishing is not a bad way to go, as long as you can get traffic to your website.” I have given up on Mitchell Beazley (you can quote me) for whom I have written four books (the two most serious of which won big awards), and will self-publish my next book (a complete update of ‘Biodynamic Wines’ to cover all certified organic, organic-biodynamic, and biodynamic producers worldwide) for two reasons: one has complete editorial/stylistic control; I am confident I can generate enough web traffic/direct sales to pay for the investment in writing/editing/publishing. I gave up on Mitchell Beazley when the latest head-honcho wrote to me to tell me he wouldn’t pay me to re-write Biodynamic Wines because it wasn’t selling. The previous week a biodynamic wine producer, Bertie Eden (who is English) of Comte Cathare, had tried to order thirty copies of the book (RRP £25) but was told by Mitchell Beazley that the book had sold out (so that was the reason why it wasn’t selling...). I haven’t even got a copy of the second edition of Biodynamic Wines, and the last time I looked on eBay second hand copies were selling for double the retail price. Publishers do know how to publish – but they don’t always know how to sell.

13 Mar 2009 11:21 by Monty Waldin

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