I do hope you are not all bored of the endless accounts of events I have attended. It’s extraordinary for me to attend anything, so this sudden rash of activity is quite unprecedented. But I really can’t resist telling you about the other meeting I attended at the book festival this weekend, which has produced so many intriguing questions in my mind. It was called ‘Publishing by Inclination’ and sported three editors from mainstream publishing houses, supposedly discussing how they still spent their days coaxing literary works of great artistic merit onto the marketplace rather, I suppose, than the endless celebrity guff we all fear they are exclusively interested in producing. Well, it was one of those sessions from which I emerged thinking thoughts along the lines of: there was something distinctly rotten in the state of Denmark, but I couldn’t absolutely put my finger on what. Let me tell you what I saw and heard and we’ll see what you think.
Dramatis personae first. Names escape me as usual (probably just as well) but first in line was a gentleman from Serpent’s Tail, who reeked of old school publishing. His face was ravaged and haunted although his muffin top waistline spoke of many a good author lunch. He addressed the audience without ever making eye contact, in fact he spent much time rubbing the flat of his hand over his face and his balding head in a gesture of abject hopelessness or perhaps exquisite boredom. I was just waiting for the moment when it all became too much for him and he simply put his head in his hands and left it there. Fortunately we reached the end of the session before he reached the point of despair. It was a truly extraordinary kind of stage presence to adopt, which could only indicate that over the years he had grown so accustomed to being important, but had coupled his sense of worth onto a star of such tragic destiny, that he had long ceased to care what his exterior expressed to other people. A King Lear in need of Prozac rather than a straitjacket. At the far end of the platform was a woman from Picador, who said she had been a primary school teacher before going into publishing and that sort of showed. She was wearing a collection of shapeless garments mostly in black and had gorgeously eloquent hand gestures and a nicely modulated voice that frequently sank below the hearing range of most human beings, as if she were used to being shouted down in meetings on a regular basis. I felt she had come straight out of the pages of an Anita Brookner novel. If the Serpent’s Tail man embodied despair, she was the figure of weary resilience, clinging to her principles on the edges of a terrible battlefield. In the middle sat another woman editor, this time from Jonathan Cape. She looked like I hope Precious Ramotswe might look – glasses, braids, sensible dress, killer shoes. She mixed some genuine love of books in with a bit of fun, whilst all the time emanating the notion that you really wouldn’t want to mess with her. By the time it was all over, she was undoubtedly the only one of the three I would have wanted to work with, but alas, she is busy building up an African list and I would be waaaaaay too white for her. But still, her sheer presence gave me some hope. Oh and I must add that the session was chaired by a literary agent who came straight from Central Casting. She stood the whole time, a tall, angular woman, with her hand on her hip, her oblong-framed glasses perched on the end of her nose, perfect hint of dominatrix but nothing vulgar, and she spoke in a deep, thrilling voice into her microphone. Bravo!
Now, I go to such lengths to give you pictures of these people, not just, you understand, because it’s fun, but because in this instance personality matters. Publishing is a deeply subjective business and these are the people holding the hopes of all amateur scribblers, not to mention committed readers. One of the very first things the despairing man said to us, when asked to describe what he did, was that Serpent’s Tail had a particular interest in publishing books in translation, and that the UK had the lowest percentage of foreign books (3%) of any book market in the world, something of which to be proud – or maybe not, was how he put it. You note he did not say, as any other businessman might: ‘What a fantastic opportunity for us! We can introduce a product that’s done well in other countries into the domestic market, where it is still unheard of’. When they were all asked about the current economic climate, he said that publishing houses were in uproar, people falling on their swords left, right and center, but in fact sales were only down about 1%. And again, the optimism of the situation was a non-starter; whatever sales were actually doing, the consequences were clearly going to revolve around the perceived crisis.
This was less surprising in many ways, when it became apparent that the problem in sales seems to have been ongoing for many years. When asked about the kind of authors that sold, the outlook was grim. One editor said it was easier to sell a new author than one who had published three or four not-so-successful books. The situation was worse than that, said another, because the booksellers simply looked up the sales figures for first novel and, if they had not been good, refused to take another book from that author unless there were ‘compelling reasons’. And when they thought about it, it was nigh impossible to sell a first time novelist, either. Even in-house, this selling problem persisted. When asked what editors did for authors, the response was heartily that they championed their work. ‘That’s why I have to really love a book to take it on,’ Anita Brookner’s protagonist said. ‘I can only publish a few books a year and so anything I say yes to takes up a slot I might want to use for another book.’ ‘Well, you can’t be enthusiastic about absolutely every book,’ Precious Ramotswe added. ‘Otherwise the people in marketing cease to believe you.’ So, let’s think about that. On the one hand, editors have almost impossible standards for books because there is always that perfect fantasy manuscript out there somewhere. But even the books they do agree to, and do champion, might fall foul of political practices, the love for some suppressed in order to curry favour for others. Surely you would hope that editors, with their much reduced lists, could champion every single book they bought, and petition for more, without damaging their credibility.
Nor were this group interested in new technology. Asked about e-books they were straightforwardly dismissive. The despairing man said that he thought they were only an invention for editors, so that they could avoid carrying 20 kilos of manuscript home on the bus. Sales were at less than one percent, and he didn’t foresee them rising. Anita Brookner’s protagonist said she’d actually given up with her Sony reader now and was back to the manuscripts. And that was that. To be honest, I didn’t really expect anything different, but I suppose I always nurse a little kernel of hope. That one day, publishing will sort out its elements of business and artistry so that each helps the other, rather than undermines the other. That publishers will find ways to work the demand that does exist for books, rather than lament the promised land of demand that doesn’t. That there will come an understanding of book production that minimizes production costs, broadens choice for readers, and actually implements the power of marketing over a wider spectrum of books with wisdom and creativity. Anything, oh anything, rather than this policy of endless retrenchment. In my mind this is fundamentally an attitude issue; publishers are volatile rather than responsive, coldly hysterical rather than warmly enthusiastic. There is a pervasive depression cast over the industry, which feels marginalized amongst the media. And professional book critics don’t help; they are hardly the useful cheerleaders they might be. ‘Remember that the object of the critic is to revenge himself on the creator’, Cyril Connolly remarked perkily, back in the 1920s, and not much has changed since.
My husband’s theory is that publishing is a crisis of middle management. He came to this conclusion after listening to the accounts of the editors’ average day. The despairing man said that, usually, his day was eaten up with a skirmish of some kind, for instance over cover choice. The bookseller would ring, saying they didn’t like the cover on a potential new release, which would trigger a series of unpleasant and time-consuming meetings with the art department, with the sales and marketing department and with the author (‘who always has his own ideas’ he declared, darkly). ‘What a terrible waste of valuable resources,’ my husband said afterwards. ‘All those people’s salaries going to waste on something so tangential.’ There are an awful lot of people crowding around the middle ground of the book market – booksellers, wholesalers and agents alike take a significant cut of the money to be had, let alone the various departments of a large publishing house. I do think that if small independents get their act together, the book world might just be their oyster. What do you need, after all, to publish? A team of editors with vision, some good authors to supply the words, and ideally, someone with reliable skills of diplomacy and arbitration to make each side comprehensible to the other. Distribution is the real difficulty with books; if you could produce some sort of cooperative network, maybe that would be the way forward?
But I also think that big publishing houses are looking at huge missed potential in the current climate. After the session we wandered back through town and stopped off at a bookstore en route. There I browsed the shelves, thinking how many wonderful books are out there that I haven’t read (and I’ve been putting my back into it, I assure you). Books continue to get published despite the book industry, rather in the same way that people continue to move house, despite mortgage lenders and conveyancing lawyers. I bought two (full price, no special deal) paperbacks for less than the cost of our tickets to the session we’d just attended, for less than if we’d spent the afternoon at the cinema or the theatre. In entertainment terms, books provide the cheapest pleasure-per-hour than just about any other form of media, except maybe broadband, and books are better for you than that. Where are the publishers recognizing what a great selling point this is? There’s something for everyone’s tastes out there, good reading spawns ever more reading, and the more desperate the cultural situation, the more a populace longs for entertainment. But I wonder whether the morale of the publishing world is too low to see itself clearly. We need some magnificent role models, some publishers like the Penguin mogul, Allan Lane, whose motivation was notably described as ‘both missionary and mercenary’. Someone to inject a bit of grit and verve into the flagging spirit of the industry. The editors were asked to produce encouraging stories for us, and Precious Ramotswe described how one author had effectively stalked her, ‘but in such a charming way’, that she had eventually read his manuscript and called him in to talk for an hour about how terrible it was. He came back to her with another book and this time she took him on. ‘But I wouldn’t really suggest stalking as the way to publication,’ she told us with a wry chuckle. It was a great story if simply to encapsulate the paradox of publishing at the moment – the answers publishers have are never really the answers any of us want.