Monday, October 25, 2004

Penguin and the culture of politeness

On 26 June I noted in these august columns that the ancient and honourable UK publishing firm of Penguin was having trouble with its warehouse. It had opened a new 'state of the art' distribution centre in Rugby, all fully computerised, of course. And the problem was, the, er -- well, the software didn't work.

Bookshops ordered books and Penguin couldn't supply them. Not, at any rate, by using its new improved system. It could only supply books by employing lots of men to scurry around with baskets and collect the books by hand, in much the same way as farmers' wives used to go round collecting eggs. Result: endless delays, inefficiencies, and lost sales on a grand scale.

By any standards, this situation was a business catastrophe of the first order. Back in June, Publishing News estimated that the likely loss to Penguin was somewhere between £20m and £30m. Which is a lot of money. And the authors would lose proportionately, of course.

Now Publishing News brings us
up to date. Penguin's authors have recently had their royalty cheques for the half year ending 30 June. And they are not happy. Most authors have lost one third of their expected income; some are down by an estimated half. The Society of Authors and the Association of Authors' Agents are thinking of taking legal action against Penguin to obtain suitable compensation.

However, the point about all this which interests me is one which was raised recently by Michael Cader in his Publishers
Lunch newsletter. He said recently that, while at Frankfurt, he asked more or less everyone from England 'Why hasn't there been more howling about the mess at Penguin's new warehouse?'

Mr Cader does not tell us what answer he got, but I can give him one. The answer is that a British writer who jumps up and down and complains about the performance of his publisher is a writer who pretty soon isn't going to have a publisher.

The whole culture of British publishing is still gentlemanly and ladylike. It takes its tone from the mannerisms of public life in the UK fifty years ago. I once knew a senior civil servant in the Treasury, and he remarked to me, 'You have to remember that I come from a culture in which to say, "I'm afraid I can't quite agree with you on that" means "I shall fight to the death to prevent you achieving your aims."'

The same applies in publishing. Once, years ago, when I was still working through an agent, I typed out on one side of a sheet of paper a least of key terms which I would require from a publisher if the publisher and I were to do a deal on a proposed book. I showed this sheet of paper to my then agent.

The agent was one of the most tactful and discreet people that I have ever met in my life. She read the note, and for a second a frown almost crossed her face. Then she said quietly, 'You know, Michael, publishing is a very friendly business.'

What she meant by that was, 'Don't try to be too brisk and businesslike, because it won't go down well.' And she was right, of course.

In dealing with British publishers it is bad form to be businesslike. What happens is that, if your agent puts in a great deal of hard work, you eventually get to have lunch with an editor. Lunch, please note, not a meeting. When attending this lunch you do not present the editor with an agenda for discussion. Dear me, no. What happens is that you have a pleasant time talking about all sorts of things, and if all goes well both sides emerge with a nice warm feeling and a vague understanding that it might be possible, in due course, to do a book together.

The paperwork, if it ever arrives, may well include, in the small print, a number of clauses which a thoughtful and well informed writer might feel inclined to question. But if you do, you will be told in rather hurt tones that, 'Those are our standard terms, I'm afraid, and we really couldn't vary those.'

The only sensible response to that statement is: Why the bloody hell not? What's so holy about 'standard terms'?

Mind you, an experienced writer soon realises that, in at least 95 cases out of 100, a publishing contract isn't worth the paper it's written on. For example, the contract will normally call for the book to be published within 12 months of signature. But supposing 13 or 14 months go by, and the book has not yet appeared in print (not an unusual occurrence). What are you going to do then -- take your book away and offer it to someone else? I hardly think so.

The trouble with British publishing, in short, is that everyone is too damn nice. Particularly the authors. A little hard-nosed business acumen would not go amiss. The Times on Saturday quotes the general secretary of the Society of Authors as saying 'Individually, authors like the staff at Penguin and they're reluctant on their own to make too much of a meal of it.'

See what I mean? They're reluctant to make much of it because they know that a writer who asks too many awkward questions soon gets labelled as 'difficult'. And it is but a short step from being labelled 'difficult' to being labelled 'Not wanted on Voyage'.

And so, as far as the Penguin warehouse nonsense is concerned, it is not at all the done thing to enquire who, by name, is responsible for this debacle. And who, by name, has been sacked for it. After all, everyone makes mistakes.

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