The publisher: lying, foolish and indispensable

In a small moment of perfect synchronicity, the once-famous publishing imprint of Victor Gollancz will produce only science fiction.
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The Independent Online

This news has come in the very same week that two high-profile British authors, Fay Weldon and Frederick Forsyth, have opted to reach their readers directly through the internet. The idea, Forsyth has said, is to cut out the middleman.

This news has come in the very same week that two high-profile British authors, Fay Weldon and Frederick Forsyth, have opted to reach their readers directly through the internet. The idea, Forsyth has said, is to cut out the middleman.

Gollancz, publisher of George Orwell, Ford Madox Ford, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, Updike's Rabbit, Run and many others, was a middleman of the old order, and not too many people will be surprised that the list bearing his name will now cease to be a major player in the market-led book business of today. Like many other independent publishing houses that built their reputation in the middle of the 20th century, Gollancz was swallowed up by a large conglomerate and reduced to the status of an imprint that provided an impression of seriousness and a declining turnover.

No doubt, there will be sad mutterings from traditionalists. A business that feeds unhealthily on its own myths, publishing tends to look back to a long-lost golden age dominated by titans of flair, ego and brilliance - Gollancz, Fredric Warburg, Michael Joseph, Allen Lane of Penguin, and then André Deutsch, George Weidenfeld, Billy Collins and Tom Maschler.

In fact, while those men may have belonged to smarter clubs than their editorial counterparts today, there is little evidence that they were more high-minded or intelligent. Certainly, many of them were not over-scrupulous in their dealings with authors. In one of his letters, Philip Larkin complained that "whereas Mr Watt, my agent, and Mr Faber, my publisher, have Daimlers and country cottages now and for evermore, I, the author, without whom they would be nothing but a heap of desiccated dogshit, haven't a Daimler nor a country cottage now, and as far as I can see, never will have." VS Naipaul described publishers as "common, lying, low class and foolish".

Yet, in one sense, the old-codger view of publishing history has validity. Those men represented a time when editorial judgement mattered above all else, when books and literary careers were launched and supported by the enthusiasm and faith of an individual. Today's authors are at the mercy of marketing types in publishing and book chains, who see an editorial view of the text as something to be considered after computer records have been consulted and publicity angles assessed. The result is the increasingly hysterical and short-term approach to book production.

Independent publishers are a threatened species. The highly successful Fourth Estate tumbled willingly into bed with Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins earlier this year. André Deutsch, a list that once boasted such names as Mailer, Updike, Vidal and Naipaul, is being flogged off by the Kingfisher group.

Things get bigger, it might be said. The corner-shop gives way to Tesco, and there is no point in blubbing about it. Instead of high-profile editor-publishers of the Gollancz school, the new stars of the literary firmament are shrewd marketing types, powerful literary agents, bestselling authors who are able to cut out publishers altogether and sell directly to the public.

But what of the long-term effects of this new, streamlined arrangement? If Frederick Forsyth looked back to the days when he first start writing fiction, he might recall that his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, was widely rejected as breaking all the generally accepted rules of thriller fiction. The person whose faith and energy launched Forsyth's career was called Harold Harris, and he was an editor - or, to put it another way, a middleman.

terblacker@aol.com

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