The industry in turmoil

So it's out with the editors, in with the strategists. Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson is not impressed
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We are in the middle of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Penguin, that smart little bird which revolutionised not only publishing but the education of a whole generation of people, strapped for cash, eager to improve their lot, and ambitious for their children (see Jeremy Lewis above). Penguin was, without a shadowy of doubt, a force for good. Some have claimed that its invention was more significant than the Beveridge Report.

The feathers of the dinner-jacketed flightless bird look a trifle worn, suddenly. Some time ago - this may sound like a fairy story, though from the pen of the Grimm brothers rather than the more comforting Hans Christian Anderson - Penguin devoured a few small publishing companies, among them Hamish Hamilton and Michael Joseph, both of which had contributed not ingloriously to readers' entertainment and edification. Last week, Hamish Hamilton, it was decreed, was no more; verticalisation (a nasty word of which more anon) ruled. Why have a separate editorial team when there are plenty of other editors within Penguin? Indeed, why bother with editors at all? Anyone can assemble a list of writers. What is important is to market them.

The signs were there. Once upon a time, there was another bird called Pelican, Generations of readers recognised the pale blue covers and were instantly reassured. Pelicans were the best serious books available, offering a dependable, often brilliant window on the mysteries of history, literature and criticism. But, it was claimed, they were old-fashioned. So, they had to go.

Hamish Hamilton was considerably less significant, but a list which could combine Nancy Mitford and JK Galbraith, Albert Camus and Peter Mayle, James Thurber and Truman Capote, Paul Theroux and Simmenon, Germaine Greer and William Boyd, cannot have been contemptible. But, in spite of the feeble protestations that the imprint will remain, it won't.

Elsewhere, at HarperCollins (it used to be plain - and mightily successful - Collins) employees are being asked to volunteer for redundancy, and there are rumours that the expansive, cigar-smoking head of the British end may be on the point of descending from a high parapet but attached to a pleasingly golden parachute. At Reed, in reality Reed Elsevier, the trade division, which includes such fine imprints as Methuen, Secker and Warburg, and William Heinemann, is on the block. The Dutch half-parent company is eager to dispose of their interests in the consumer-led part of their extensive portfolio. What is curious is that Elsevier has, so as to speak, been here before. Some years ago it bought the distinguished American publishing company, EP Dutton, and later decided trade publishing was too speculative. So Elsevier sold Dutton to - there is an admirable symmetry here - Penguin, or Viking as it was then called in America.

Why is this continual round of acquisition, reflection and sale inevitable? I offer a three-act play in miniature. Act 1 (set in the 1960s). A meeting is taking place. It consists of two people, both editors. They are considering whether to publish a script which they have both read. There are two questions. Is it good? Will it sell? The meeting is brief and conclusive. Act 2 (set in the 1980s). A meeting is taking place. It consists of eight people, a manager, an editor, and representatives from the sales, publicity and marketing departments, the production director, and the financial director. They are considering whether to publish a script which only the editor has read (and then only in the face of a brisk remark from the manager: "Why bother to read it? The real question is whether we can market it !"). A decision is deferred until the paperback people have vouchsafed an opinion. No decision will be made for some weeks. Act 3 (set in the near future). The stage is dark. No meeting is taking place. There is no book to consider, and there is no one to consider it in any case.

It is a deplorably old-fashioned view, but without editors there is no publishing. The influence of editors used to be excessive, perhaps, but corporate publishing does not encourage editors' enthusiasms and eccentricities. Verticalisation has ensured that no one editor has the power to make a decision, so that an anodyne, homogenised culture has broken out. Decision by committee may introduce a warm glow in the corporate bosom, but it does not have much to do with authors, who tend to be the forgotten part of the equation.

The excessive power of editors has given way to the excessive power of marketing people. Once there were no marketing people. There were sales departments and publicity departments. The combination of these two, with the editorial department, were considered enough. Now there are vast marketing budgets (all too easily slashed in times of recession) attached to books which have garnered vast advances. It is a case of flogging a dead horse with a golden whip.

I must declare an interest. It is not often that, even in the exceedingly fluid state of publishing, one man sees in the same week the demise of a company for which he worked for nearly 30 years and the imminent sale of a company which he founded. Two questions arise. Is it possible for small independent publishers to survive? Is it possible for corporate publishers to tolerate small groups of editors, tiresomely old-fashioned in their aim to publish a wide range of books, some literary, some commercial, some conceivably a combination of the two, even more peculiar in their desire to help their authors rather than create their own reputations as masterminds? The answer to both questions is no. Small publishers, unless they are highly specialised, simply do not have enough cash. Corporate publishers will always opt for being bland because it is safe, or for the authors with good track records even though those careers may just be on the slide. It will, more and more, become an area where the unimaginative are in pursuit of the unimaginable, and, even worse, the unintelligent are chasing the unintelligible.

In the past, publishing has tended to be cyclical. Like great Victorian empire-builders, the publishing giants have sought to become even more gigantic. Overheads increase. The market diminishes. There are only two ways to salvation: either they dispose of the less profitable colonies by selling them to an ever-decreasing number of interested parties, or they abolish them altogether.

And so back to Penguin. One hesitates to throw cold water over their current celebrations, but are they serving themselves, let alone their public, by their recent activities? Is it not possible to revamp the Pelican list and send it out to the hundreds of thousands of readers who, not so long ago, bought the books almost by rota? Is it not possible to encourage intelligent young editors when their authors are becoming commercially, let alone critically, successful.

If the current trend continues, writers will become disenchanted with publishers and will set about publishing themselves. Timothy Mo and Jill Paton Walsh make headlines because their books win prizes and receive wide review coverage, but there's a host of authors, less well known, who are beginning to see the alternative: publish yourself. It would be ludicrous to pretend that such a course of action does not present problems. The bookselling structure is as creaky as the structure of publishing. Cut-backs in government and local authority spending have ensured that the public library system is a shadow of what it was.

At least, though, the author has some control, and is no longer prone to the vacillations of publishers, the fall-out after take-overs, the departure of editor after editor and the general mediocrity of so much management in the publishing industry.

Conglomerates should stop buying companies for all the wrong reasons (a mixture of the perceived glamour of famous imprints, a desire to stop competitors, and a wild hope that they can actually make money out of trade publishing). But they won't.