This chapter tells the story of the relatively brief life of a highly successful company. Octopus was founded in 1971 by Paul Hamlyn, one of the most famous entrepreneurs in UK publishing history. He sold the company in 1987, emerging with some £200m. For that reason alone the facts are worthy of close study by anyone who hopes to make serious money in the book business.
Another entrepreneur whose name crops up here is that of Robert Maxwell. And we are reminded, of course, that Maxwell was adept at fiddling the books. Though nothing like that could possibly happen today; naturally.
Chapter 7: Reed as a trade publisher
In 1987 Octopus was bought by Reed, and chapter 7 deals with the fortunes of that company. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Reed overpaid for Octopus, and neither the buyer nor the bought imprint did particularly well thereafter.
We are given here one of the few references to the role of authors in publishing, when we are told that ‘relations with authors require a light touch, otherwise damage can ensue. Sloppy, let alone inaccurate royalty statements can be hugely unsettling.’ Yes indeed. Authors are funny that way. They often have to write a complete book, for zero money, before anyone will even think of giving them a contract. Then, when the book is published, they only get paid every six months, and even then they have to wait until three months after the end of the half-year. And when there is the smallest error in their royalty statements they get all huffy on you. Well, that’s writers for you. Ungrateful beasts at the best of times.
The Reed story seems to me to be fairly typical of the shambolic, steer-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to publishing which is so typical of the UK book business. A process of centralisation was followed by decentralisation. The usual nonsense. Perhaps other industries provide equally bizarre management patterns, but I cannot speak of such from personal experience, and Bellaigue gives us no comparators.
Finally, Reed merged with Elsevier, in 1993, and some sort of rationalisation took place. Elsevier had at least had the sense to ‘shift out of low margin business such as printing and trade publishing, into high margin business, such as scientific journals and professional publishing.’
The overall moral of this chapter, however, is that there is money to be made in trade publishing, if you’re smart enough. Very few are.
Chapter 8: Chatto, Bodley Head, and Jonathan Cape
Chapter 8 covers the fate of three prestigious (in some eyes) literary firms. And it is clear that prestige has a curious hold, even today. If you seek examples of fuzzy thinking in UK publishing, this chapter is a promising source. We have, for example, the spectacle of a possible purchaser of Goliard Press remarking that ‘far from being profitable, the enterprise might well lose money for a time’, but it seemed a worthwhile purchase ‘in the cause of poetry.’ Which is all very well, I suppose, if you’re using your own money.
There is also a passing reference to the difficulty of comparing like with like in the publishing business. Cape, Chatto, and the Bodley Head all had different year-ends, and ‘to some extent accounting practices.’ The importance of the latter should not be underestimated, I gather. I seem to remember that a peculiar, though legal, method of writing off the production costs of books was one of the factors which led to the demise of Element.
Another insight is provided by Bellaigue’s remark that ‘in most publishing houses, the leading lights are intent on finding a Salman Rushdie’ rather than in cutting a couple of days off delivery times. Once again, glamour is confused with effectiveness.
Yet another such example is provided by Bellaigue’s account of the refurbishment of Number 32 Bedford Square, which was ‘grand and lavish’. It led, unsurprisingly, to trouble. ‘The embellishments that were undertaken were hardly calculated to send amber lights flashing. Furthermore, the number of people within the group who were in a position to recognize the significance of any such flashes had they occurred was severely limited.’ In other words, the bosses all had exquisite taste in literature but none of them knew how to read a set of accounts.
Bellaigue quotes Carmen Callil: ‘People who make money in literary publishing are rare’; and Tom Maschler: ‘Literary trade publishing is doomed to fail the profits tests of a quoted company.’ Both of which are surely obvious to anyone with any experience, but the obvious does not seem to deter people from trying. Over and over again.