Monday, May 24, 2004

Goodbye to all that

Reuters report that Penguin UK have decided not to issue any more printed catalogues (or catalogs, if you're an American reader).

Penguin estimate that they can save £100,000 a year by providing their catalogue online, and, what is more, they can provide more accurate and up-to-date information.

On the whole this seems a wise move. It may even help writers. Years ago, when I was still trying to deal with publishing firms of the Penguin variety, I used to send for the catalogues of all the major publishing firms, and those of many smaller firms too. I did this at least once a year, and sometimes twice. It was an exercise which told one much about the ability of publishers to organise and manage their affairs. I gave an account of this procedure in my book The Truth about Writing (essential reading for every novelist, playwright, and screenwriter), and, to save you the trouble of buying the book, here is what I said.

In the case of the smaller publishers, the procedure for getting hold of a catalogue is quite simple. You ring up the main number, and the young lady (it usually is a young lady) takes your name and address; she writes it on an envelope there and then, stuffs a catalogue into the envelope, and tosses it into the post tray. Done.

The bigger companies, of course, are much more efficient than that. Oh yes. They have Systems, and the trouble with Systems is that they can sometimes be hell to deal with.

Every year I invariably have trouble with one big company. It’s not always the same company – they take it in turns to annoy – but every year there is at least one firm which really screws things up. This year it was the turn of Clapham and Irons.

You ring up C&I, tell them that you want a fiction catalogue, and the operator informs you that catalogues are dealt with by their distributor. OK....

So, you ring the distributor, and after the usual recorded lunacy (‘If you want lunch, press 1; if you want political asylum, press 2’) you eventually manage to speak to a human being. Called Doreen. You explain that you want a C&I fiction catalogue.

‘Are you a customer of ours?’

‘No, I’m a member of the public. I just want a fiction catalogue to see what C&I are publishing next year.’

Can’t have one. Sorry. Catalogues are only sent to booksellers.

No amount of argument will shift our Doreen. She has her instructions, and it’s more than her jobsworth to disobey them. Supervisor won’t budge either. God forbid, apparently, that a catalogue should ever fall into the hands of anyone who might actually buy a book.

Eventually, I give up and go back to C&I head office. I ask to speak to the sales manager’s secretary.

This is a dodge that I have tried before when sorely tested. You usually find that the secretary to the head salesperson has a few catalogues lying around on her desk and she can sometimes be persuaded to send you one. But this time the secretary isn’t answering. I get voice-mail, which I avoid using if at all possible.

I go back to the main switchboard, explain once more what I want, and ask to speak to somebody, please – really, really please – who might be able to inject a little common sense into the situation.

‘Ah yes,’ says the operator firmly, ‘catalogues are dealt with by Peter. I’ll put you through.’

But Peter isn’t there, of course. He's in a meeting. Voice-mail again.

For two or three days I try, in vain, to get through to Peter in person. In the end I give up and leave a message on his voice-mail. I ask, very specifically and clearly, for a copy of their current fiction catalogue.

Three weeks later (yes, it can be as quick as that), I receive a parcel through the post. It is a big, heavy parcel. So big and heavy, in fact, and so badly packed, that it has fallen apart in transit, and the post-office people have had to patch it all together again. It is delivered with multiple apologies for the Post Office’s carelessness, though for once the fault is not theirs.

This parcel contains twelve catalogues, all different. Each catalogue describes the C&I range of books which is offered in various school subjects, such French, Chemistry, German, and so forth. The average printing cost of such a catalogue, according to figures in a recent Bookseller, is about £1.50 each; so, if you include postage I have had about £20 of C&I’s money spent on me. But these catalogues are of no use to me and they all go into the bin.

And I still don’t have a fiction catalogue.

At which point I give up. I decide to live without news of C&I’s fiction.

Next year, C&I will behave impeccably, and it will be some other firm which proves itself to be hopeless in carrying out a simple task. But I have no doubt that I shall have big trouble with one of them.

And no, I didn't make up any of the above. It all really happened. More than once.

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