There's no poetry in bookselling

Editors, in their terror of bullying accountants, have chosen to forget to nurture today's writers
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The Independent Culture
THERE WILL probably be disagreement among historians of the future as to when exactly late-20th-century book publishing finally gave up any pretence to cultural seriousness and queasily embraced the values of the pop music business or estate agency. The disappearance of medium-sized independent houses into the maw of media multinationals during the Eighties will be seen as one key moment; the more recent abandonment of price control on books, tightening the stranglehold on the industry of giant bookselling chains and publishing conglomerates, another. A significant footnote in the story may be the court case in which the American publisher, Random House, ingloriously attempted to wriggle out of an embarrassing, expensive contract with their successful author of trash, Joan Collins, on the grounds that her latest book was trash.

Then, at some point, the historians will cast their eyes upon the university presses. They will find that here the criticism is more muted - not because these institutions are more efficient than their commercial colleagues (far from it), but because a certain aura of seriousness still attends academic publishing. Presses that are answerable to a university rather than to shareholders are regarded as inherently more serious, and less vulgarly concerned with financial matters.

There is also, of course, the fact that university presses wield astonishing power. The vast majority of authors who write for them have no literary agents and, such is the desperate need of academics to sustain their careers by getting published, these people are a publisher's dream: unworldly, compliant and doggily grateful that their work will appear in print, however badly they are treated.

In the past, this imbalance of power between publisher and author caused occasional acts of malpractice (not by chance did Robert Maxwell make his fortune in this area), and a general meanness towards authors, which only occasionally came to light. Now the game has become more complicated and somewhat seedier.

The astonishing, shaming decision of the Oxford University Press to dump, without appeal or exception, its highly respected poetry list has revealed that, while still claiming to be a special case when it suits them, university presses can act with all the crass short-sightedness and greed of their colleagues in the purely commercial sector. "The poetry list was making the marketing people face in a different direction from the way they are facing when they are promoting the World's Classics series or The Oxford History of Nursing," was how an OUP suit attempted to explain the decision to The Independent's John Walsh.

That phrase, indeed the whole sorry saga, explains why modern publishing is now accorded so little respect. For as long as anyone can remember, the only direction that marketing people face is up the bottoms of their powerful bookselling customers.

Although publishers were never quite as virtuous and noble as they liked to pretend, it was generally accepted that, in a healthily run house, a balance would exist between the sales and the editorial sides. One attended to turnover and profit while the other created a list that occasionally involved risk in the name of future talent. A small proportion of the easy cash made from such series as the World's Classics would be ploughed back into more difficult areas of contemporary writing, such as poetry.

As anyone who works in a university will testify, academics are hopeless with money and the new, fiscally responsible approach to learning has left them floundering amid the balance sheets. But on this occasion they are in step with their colleagues in the large publishing conglomerates.

The trend there is towards quick and easy revenue-earners, books whose appeal can be grasped without difficulty by even the most money-crazed marketing person. Rather than nurture real writers who, in the future, will (all right, may) repay them with work of significance, they prefer to throw money at any politician or resting actor whose literary effort, however lame, will be relatively simple to promote. Editors, in their terror of bullying accountants, have chosen to forget that if they do not nurture today's writers, daring even to lose money over a book or two in the early stages of his or her career, they will become increasingly, disastrously dependent on the tried and tested, on passing fashion.

The refusal of academics to hold the line against commercialism is publishing's own trahison des clercs. Oxford University Press finds itself on the cutting edge of contemporary style culture.