Books: A lament for publishing

Once it was enough for a book just to be good. But in the age of the huge corporation, that simple virtue counts for little.
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In recent years, world publishing has been like the frog in La Fontaine's fable. Publishing corporations have gobbled up so much in their determination to get bigger that they have been in danger of bursting. Having been in succession the editorial director in a large publishing corporation (HarperCollins) and in a medium sized independent publishing house (Constable) and most recently the publishing and managing director of a small independent publisher (Duckworth), I have seen this problem at first hand.

The arrival in the UK of the American publishing conglomerate Crowell, Collier and Macmillan in the early 1970s was the harbinger of the trend. This publishing monster gobbled up at a stroke five lively, independent publishing houses. It looked impressive as a commercial move. But what was important was that these five publishing houses were totally disparate, and editorially they occupied entirely different territories.

First, there was the venerable general publishing house Cassell, publishers of Winston Churchill and such highly successful novelists as Nicholas Monsarrat and Eric Ambler. Next was Studio Vista, a publisher of art books, followed by Bailliere Tindall, a highly reputed publisher of medical text books, and Johnson and Bacon, publishers of maps and guide books. Finally, and most strangely, Crowell Collier and Macmillan bought the Roman Catholic publishing house Geoffrey Chapman. Chapman had recently scored a huge hit by wheedling his way into the Vatican and acquiring publishing rights in Pope John XXIII's Journal of a Soul.

To some, this lumping together of imprints looked bizarre, but the purchasers believed they had bought their way into the British publishing market in a serious way. Size would equal strength. Critical mass was assured. Big would be beautiful, and before them the somnolent British publishing fraternity would quake.

How wrong they were. It is hard to lump together such diverse publishing enterprises and make a commercial success. Cassell was a general publishing imprint, the others highly specialised, each requiring specialised techniques to sell and promote their books. The company was beset by strikes, and overall the result was fairly disastrous for all concerned.

At that time, most publishing houses in Britain were privately owned, and most often dominated by towering individuals: autocratic men, often but not always people with literary passion and wide culture. Typical were Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, Sir Victor Gollancz and the one who outlived all the others, Colin Haycraft of Duckworth.

Often they were lousy businessmen. Their publishing houses were undercapitalised. But they were sustained by the belief that if a book was good it would sell, and their judgement was what would make or break the business. Colin Haycraft once said that it did not matter what jacket you put on a book; if a book was good, it would sell.

Among these publishing barons was a man who created a real revolution. This was Billy (Sir William) Collins. The publishing house of Collins had been founded in Glasgow in the mid-19th century to publish religious books (including bibles) and thereby to combat alcoholism and moral corruption. There was a motto pinned up on the wall of their Cathedral Street offices in Glasgow which read as follows:

Devil trembles when he sees

Bibles sold as cheap as these.

In the post-war years, Billy ran the show. Totally devoid of literary snobbery and a keen athlete, he had a kind of Boy's Own mentality. Other publishers were falling over themselves to acquire the rights in the latest novel by Heinrich Boll or Francoise Sagan, believing that they were making a contribution to culture; Billy was out selling books. His nose was for a huge middle-brow audience, and he was determined to reach it.

Today, we take this revolution for granted. But as late as the early 1960s, the editors at the publishing house of Constable, for example, were each telephoning bookshops themselves to sell their own list of books. There was no sales director; no marketing strategy.

In the 1960s, publishing staff were divided into two classes - gentlemen and "players". The gentlemen consisted of the proprietor and his editorial staff. These were all addressed by their Christian names. The players, always addressed as Mr ... , consisted mostly of the sales and publicity departments. The gentlemen were predominant. To the old school, the Collins technique was ungentlemanly. To them, selling was still a second-class activity which should be left to the players. But Collins's revolution was such that few publishers were untouched by it.

By the 1970s, outsiders wanted to buy publishing houses. Publishing appeared to be a "sexy" business to invest in, and there were willing sellers. Because the old publishing barons were often not good at management and could not cope with the new, and much more commercial climate (the result, at least in part of the Collins revolution), they went under in droves. More often than not, in the process of being gobbled up, their eminent names disappeared. Rupert Hart-Davis, McGibbon and Kee, Barrie and Jenkins, George Harrap, Allen and Unwin: the list is endless.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, publishing appeared to divide more or less into two categories: the big corporations, and the small group of truly independent publishing houses who managed to keep the big battalions at bay. These were of two kinds. First there were the old established houses, like John Murray and Constable, which were often owned by individuals and family trusts and who were content to make modest profits. And there were the new crop of lively independents like Fourth Estate and Serpent's Tail, and, most spectacularly, Mitchell Beazley, which was dominated by James Mitchell, a man of manic energy comparable to that of Billy Collins. Most of these were extremely interested in an "exit". They had in view an eventual sale or flotation as a public company. The publishing house of Bloomsbury would be a recent example.

Through this process the climate changed irrevocably. It was no longer "fun to go into publishing". It was very hard work, and the fleets of girls from Roedean and Sherborne disappeared. Publishing ceased to be a finishing school. It was now a serious investment, or so it appeared.

But while all this commercial activity was going on, what was happening to the quality and quantity of books published? In the corporations, the emphasis now had to be on best-sellers. Overheads were so enormous and the demand for return by investors so great, that the only frame of mind was best-sellerdom.

When a huge bestseller like The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady was published (by Michael Joseph) it was sickening to see how quickly countless imitations followed hot in pursuit, for season after publishing season. In fact, in order to sell a book it seemed that it had to be "like something else". You did not fight any more to get the rights in the new Heinrich Boll; you wanted to commission a novel on the basis that the author had slept with Mick Jagger. This was the whole process of dumbing down.

It was as a response to all of this, that the "small is beautiful" cry began to be heard. After all, was it really all that wonderful for an author to be published by a house where your editor hid behind his or her voicemail and the only information you could get about your sales figures was from an inaccurate computer print-out?

On a small independent publishing list, the author could be a big fish in a small pond and be given all the attention they craved and deserved. Famously, in 1986 Muriel Spark moved from a big corporation to a modest- sized, independent publisher, Constable. The result was that her sales increased four times. Independence was beautiful.

Another problem with big publishing corporations which began to emerge at this time was that of censorship and editorial control. If you were published by a corporation owned by Rupert Murdoch or Robert Maxwell, you were part, even in a tiny way, of someone's global strategy. The strategy had little to do with the quality of the book you were writing. After all, it was all product. The most recent example of what I am talking about was the scandal, if scandal it was, of HarperCollins declining to publish Chris Patten's memoirs of his time as Governor of Hong Kong.

When I was editorial director at HarperCollins in the 1970s, I received a call from the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper saying that they had signed up Sonia Sutcliffe (wife of the Yorkshire Ripper) to write her memoirs and they would like (Murdoch- owned) HarperCollins to publish the book. This call depressed me greatly.

Can the independent publisher survive in today's climate? The answer is they can indeed survive and they can flourish. But there are some essential points to be emphasised. They must be genuinely independent, which means that they must own themselves. Many so- called independents are no such thing. Granta is owned by an American business tycoon. Duckworth is owned by a venture capital fund. To all intents and purposes, it is therefore part of a large corporation.

The ideal set-up is that of Serpent's Tail or John Murray. Serpent's Tail is owned by its presiding genius, Peter Ayrton. John Murray is even more secure. It is owned by a trust on behalf of the Murray family, and its enlightened management decided decades ago to establish a strong presence in the educational market, giving them the security of a backlist.

There is no reason why small independent publishers should not acquire, sell and promote bestsellers. Last autumn at Duckworth, I published Beryl Bainbridge's novel Master Georgie and John Bayley's touching memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch. I don't believe the mighty forces of a large corporation would have sold a single copy more of either of these books. As I write, a new book I commissioned from John Bayley (Iris and Her Friends) is No.1 non-fiction best-seller in the Standard. Duckworth has done it again.

As a result of the revolution I describe in this article, salesmen - the players - were in the ascendant, hotly followed by their henchmen the accountants. This was a healthy evolutionary process. But the downside of the process was the decline of the creative departments - most particularly the power of the editorial department. Due to the decline in the unit sales of each book (particularly due to the catastrophic decline of the library market), editors were ordered to produce more and more books. They were forced to spend more and more time in meetings. As a result a good deal of the creative editorial role moved to the literary agent. They had the ideas to match with authors and on occasion they ended up editing the books as well: the editors in publishing corporations were just too busy. Editorial standards declined.

The picking away at publishers by reviewers for sloppy editing and misprints is now commonplace. In a recent review of Professor Roger Scruton's Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, the reviewer devoted a whole paragraph to lambasting the author, and even more his publisher, for allowing Byron's "The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold" to be absurdly misquoted in the text. The reviewer was right. Penguin is one of the very few publishers left which has an editorial department devoted to copy editing and scrutinising the text.

To be a good editor should be an ambition in itself, and editors should exercise their power and ingenuity to make their corporate systems work to the advantage of the books and the authors for which they are responsible. There are fortunately many shining examples of editors of this responsible kind working today.

How long will the gobbling up of publishing houses and imprints continue? Until there is nothing left to gobble? Then, as Bertelsmann and Random House have just done, they will start gobbling up each other.

Finally, this question. Will spiralling payment of advances and the hype go on without limit? Much has been written about the huge advances that publishing corporations feel impelled to pay for best-selling authors. In the end, the advance means all the royalty earned from the sale of the book in toto is paid in advance. But it also means that a slice of the publisher's profit is given to the author in addition. But so desperate are the big corporations for bestsellers that this seems the only way to acquire them.

Many authors have become deeply cynical about publisher's hype and limitless publicity demands. When I sat down with Beryl Bainbridge and discussed the promotion campaign for her novel Master Georgie (road shows, chat shows, press interviews, trotting round endless local radio stations) she sighed and said that if she did all that I asked she would never have the time or energy to write another novel. More and more emphasis these days is put on what the medieval theologians called the "accidents" and less and less on the "substance". Does any book sell any more because it is intrinsically good?

Muriel Spark understood this. When I published her novel A Far Cry from Kensington, I had organised a publicity tour for her. The first event was a television programme in which a number of notable people, including A J Ayer, were to assemble to discuss her new novel. I went to her hotel early in the morning on the day in question to collect her. In the lobby was not Dame Muriel Spark herself, safely arrived from her home in Italy, but a short, sharp fax. It read: "Dear Robin. Travelled as far as Boulogne sur Mer. Decided to return home." After I had recovered from the shock I realised that she was making a serious point. Muriel Spark wanted people to read her novel and judge it on its own merits. She did not want to travel round the country discussing her sex life.

Recently an independent report on the publishing industry was published. This report was statistically based and demonstrated that scores of publishers are grossly inefficient in their use of capital and make a loss on every pound invested. Of the 1,772 firms surveyed, 322 were in the "danger zone" because of declining profitability. Only 32 per cent made an acceptable return of 10 per cent on their investment. Clearly something has to change.

Robin Baird-Smith was until recently publisher and MD of Duckworth