Meet The Publishers

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.

20 thoughts on “Meet The Publishers

  1. The trouble with publishing is that it is now a big business operation, like most of the capitalist enterprise. Everything is based on models, statistics, procedures, market research and marketing. The inspired editor, if such still exist, is hemmed in by all the corporate requirements. Unfortunately in the book sphere this never fits in with the product or readership. Books are not tins of beans, everyone the same, so perfect the recipe and the problem is solved. But that’s how big business likes to operate. If it worked like that so many of the world’s greatest novels would not have had to trail round many agents and editors before getting into print. Still, loved the post – sure you couldn’t write a comic masterpiece?

  2. What wonderful descriptions and insightful analysis. (As an aside, I think Precious Ramotse is a wonderful character…in the books.) Many terrific points. I’d just add that middle management is handed down orders and budgets from the conglomerate bosses who make decisions without experience of or reference to the publishing segment of their large corporations. Then mm has to work within that framework sometimes with bizarre results. Publicists, who do the legwork of promotion, are young and inexperienced and overworked. They do what’s “always” been done, even though it hasn’t been effective for years. If they are effective, they get promoted out of publicity lickety-split! I hope that some of the potential optimism you point out will eventually filter back through the ranks.

  3. Wonderful! You have such a gift for description (yes, I read the writing showdown post also), and for understanding what is going on behind the public behavior.Write a novel–quick!!! As for publishing, I think that it has changed more radically in the past twenty years than in the two centuries prior. Something ineffable but important vanished between the loss of the crumpled tweedy jackets and overstuffed bookbags, and the entrance of the pinstriped three-piece suits. Perhaps it is merely the swinging of the pendulum. But I hope it swings back. Soon.

  4. This is so depressing in a way, because it’s exactly what is wrong with the industry that I work in. Change is going on all around us and many publishing individuals are doing the business equivalent of standing with their fingers in their ears saying ‘La la la, I can’t hear you’. I do believe that books will always be around but they will be read by the same tiny percentage of the population as always. Meanwhile, the system is broken and no one is quite sure how to fix it, because ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ As for the man who thinks e-books aren’t really happening, words fail me. That’s not even in question in any more, as I think the number of Kindles in the wild now testifies.
    Ok, stepping down from the soap box. Your post was excellent.

  5. What a hugely entertaining and interesting panel (not to mention your description of the panel, which was also entertaining and interesting!) I think you’re right that there are significant opportunities for success in publishing, as there always are when things are in flux. You make me wish I could start a publishing house, and choose fabulous books, and get to wear good glasses and interesting (but never shapeless) clothes and wave my fingers around and get wonderful writing out there in the world. But, alas, I am a writer, not an editor, and that’s that. Still, maybe some good glasses are in order….

  6. Litlove, how I have missed reading your posts this past long, long week! And what a great one to come back to… I’ll have to scroll further down to see what else I’ve missed, but LOVE these razor-sharp portraits, I felt I was sitting there giggling right along with you. Oh these types do make me laugh.

    I’ve decided I would quite like an e-book thing for travelling. I can imagine that being quite cool. Lugging books around the world gets heavy (not that I have left my post code in an age), and so the thought of one little mini-library gizmo for the duration is more and more appealing. I think book lovers will keep buying books but may also eventually embrace the benefits of the e-book, especially if they get cataloguing and pricing sorted out.

    And I agree with you – surely they MUST want to champion every book given what it takes for them to actually commit to it???

  7. What an interesting panel, and yet another brilliant post. You can write as many endless accounts of events you have attended that you want. I will not tire of them. I thought there were fewer books published in translation in the U.S., but if you all over there want to take that title it’s fine with me. We have enough over here to be embarrassed about. 🙂 I don’t know how to fix publishing but I think doing away with multi-million contracts and looking for the next bestseller might help. Why not just look for books that are well-written instead the next ‘Da Vinci Code’? I do think you are right, we need another someone like Allan Lane who has a passion and vision and drive to cut through all the petrified ways of doing things.

  8. “Muffin top waistline,” “A King Lear in need of Prozac,” “hint of dominatrix but nothing vulgar.” Litlove, stop!…You are absolutely killing me!! I laughed so hard people were sticking their heads in my office door to see if I had gone completely nut-burger at last! To see if the old girl had finally fallen off her trolley. This was wonderful. I can see these folks so clearly through you words. Good job!

  9. “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. ”

    or, in my case, they could finally be ready to take it and then legal could give it the axe…

  10. Loved your post! I have a depressed King Lear in my department too(far far from the publishing world): it’s the Depressive Salesman. Me: “Congrats Farid, I heard you had won a 2m contract! Awesome” / He: (heavy sigh) “It’s not a sure deal. It can fall through any minute.” / “But the contract is signed!” / “I’m sure they will refuse to pay”

  11. Excellent post! You are so right about it all, and I am convinced that independents are the wave of the future. Why don’t we start Emily Barton-Litlove Publishers together?

  12. Digital dame – thank you! I will pass your vote of support onto my husband – too many fingers was exactly what he was thinking.

    Bookboxed – I agree with all you say about publishing. A few years ago I wrote about 15,000 words on why the arts aren’t cool any more, several thousand of which went on the book industry. I can’t remember the stats very well, but I know that in the 60s there were about 200 important publishers in the UK, and by the mid-90s that had reduced to 30. Corporatisation indeed. You know, if I ever wrote a novel, I’d like to write one about Frosty, the devoted secretary to Penguin publishing mogul, Allan Lane. Someday I’d like to do that.

    Lilian – I completely agree – that distance between the CEO and other top brass and the editors on the publishing cliff face is really dangerous, I think. My personal feeling is that accountants and accounting mentality is to blame. The editors, when asked what they wanted to publish said ‘something different’ but if you ask the finance manager what he wants to sell, he’ll say ‘something that sells reliably’. And in this way, nothing gets published.

    ds – you’re right, things have changed so much, with books being considered on the same level as CDs and DVDs and other forms of mass media – alas they have nothing to do with them. Publishing has always been a battle ground, but when the gentlemen publishers were in charge, it was at least about maintaining standards of quality and education! And thank you for the lovely compliment – I am treasuring it!

    Dan – it’s a treat to entertain you – thank you!

    Becky – ‘I do believe that books will always be around but they will be read by the same tiny percentage of the population as always. Meanwhile, the system is broken and no one is quite sure how to fix it’ – now doesn’t that exactly hit it on the head! That’s what I think, and I am honoured that you, in publishing, think the same. It is depressing, but I have everything crossed that somehow, some people start to see it as an opportunity, which it also is. It may take a while, though.

    Lily – oh I can so see you in kick-ass glasses! You’d rock! And just you keep writing, never mind the mad publishing world. I do believe that much of the right stuff gets through eventually, although there were many stories of great books having to wait a year or so before a space came free on editor’s lists (and being turned down in the meantime). So you just have to hang on in there.

  13. Doctordi – I think the kindle sounds like a good way to travel with lots of books. I always wanted, as an academic, to be able to go to an Italian island for a month in the summer to research, but could never envisage a way to take all the books I’d need. I’m not sure how you’d manage to keep six or seven open at particular pages at one time on a kindle, but hopefully it’s possible, and it would certainly make packing easier! And that thing about only being able to champion a few books was probably the most depressing thing I heard. I was not impressed.

    Stefanie – that’s so good to know, because I went to my writing group last night, and they are always worth a post! But in the meantime, I do agree that looking for ‘the next’ of anything is disastrous, because readers always flock to something different, not more of the same. As for the shame of not reading enough books in translation, we are clearly worse over here than we care to think! But on the bright side, you could look at it as a consequence of lots of wonderful authors in English! 🙂

    Grad – I couldn’t be more delighted that I have made your office wonder if you had gone completely nut-burger (and that’s a wonderful phrase I can only thank you for introducing to me). It’s lovely to make you laugh!

    Emily – oh is that what happened? How incredibly galling. I heard a lot of stories about authors having to approach publishers time and again, lots of near-misses that were eventually converted into books – but over the course of several years. What I took away, is that it is never over, not for people to get close. Hang on in there – your time will come.

    Smithereens – what a great story! Your salesperson is most definitely related to that editor!

    Emily – oh wouldn’t that be the best fun ever? I do wish we lived closer – then we wouldn’t have to covet it as a fantasy, we could just go ahead and begin.

  14. The whole books as business thing is rather depressing, as you say, and it’s a wonder that so many (good) books still get published. I like the (not impossible) idea of books and reading doing better out of the recession though. I’m enjoying these behind-the-scenes-at-the-literary-fair type posts. What’s next?

  15. This was marvelous reading, Litlove- again, I have to say you put the reader right into the room with you. Your character sketches are superb!

    It feels as if publishers have lost their love for their product, that feeling of excitement about putting new ideas out into the world. And that is sad and depressing. I think about the care Leonard and Virginia Woolf put into the Hogarth Press, and wonder if publishing might be well served by just a bit of that kind of devotion.

  16. I enjoyed this post tremendously, Litlove. You do have a way with a character sketch! How depressing this picture of the publishing world is; all I can say is thank God good books do still get published and are out there for me to read. But I’m sad to think of all the great books I COULD be reading if it weren’t so hard for new writers to get published.

  17. Dear Litlove: a colleague came across your blog and sent it on to me. Wonderful writing… I wanted you to know that some of my best authors are white. I’d love to see if your book is as witty as the sketches here. Do send me a note.
    Yours, Precious…

  18. Litlove,

    I cannot believe it is so long since I commented here! What a great piece. You’ve captured the sense of tiredness that some in my industry carry with them every day. There are those of us with more fun views of the industry though I think a certain sense of woe seems to be pervading at the moment!

    I love the Missionary & Mercenary line it reminds me of the three Cs of colonization, Civilization, Christianity & Commerce!


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