Thursday, January 06, 2005

British book publishing as a business -- part 6

Final thoughts

Eric de Bellaigue’s British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, published by the British Library in 2004, is a remarkable book. But it is not an easy read; being information-dense, it is downright stodgy in places. Nevertheless, anyone who is serious about wanting to understand the UK book trade needs to read it carefully, pencil in hand.

The many strengths of the book have, I hope, been fully explored, so here are one or two shortcomings.

The index, I am sorry to say, is well nigh useless. Look up authors, writers, or royalties, and you will find nothing; perhaps because there is little about them in the text. But you won’t do any better with literary agents, or agents. Neither will you find the US Robinson Patman Act; or supermarkets; or discounts; or bungs.

Although the book is peerless in terms of its examination of publishing, there is still a lack of comparative data, both within the industry and between publishing and other industries. How does publishing compare with, say, advertising, or television, in terms of its return on capital, average salary, pension provision? We are not told.

As noted above, there is little in the book about the onlie begetters of books, namely the authors. And even less about their remuneration. This is entirely in line with publishing practice generally.

It is a fact that, for well over a hundred years, book publishers have been blessed by the existence of a huge number of mugs, suckers, and assorted fuzzy thinkers, who have been willing to work for a year or two, to produce a full-length manuscript on spec, without a penny piece to show for it. These would-be authors then despatch their ms to a publisher, who in a noticeable number of cases proceeds to lose it; but even when he keeps track of it, it is only to send the thing back, after a modest delay of six months or so, with a scrappy piece of paper saying ‘Sorry – not quite what we are looking for.’

So shabby and disgraceful is the industry’s treatment of its authors that it is a small miracle, if truth be told, that publishers (and agents) are not daily visited by a small gang of infuriated slush-pile rejects, brandishing iron bars at best and sawn-off shotguns at worst, demanding to see ‘that son of a bitch who wrote this letter.’

Mr Eric de Bellaigue, in common with everyone else who works in publishing, takes these people for granted. But it is ultimately the skill of the writer which determines whether a book will turn into one of those monster hits on which everything now hinges, or not.

It is my distinct impression that, despite the multi-million pound advances that we hear about, the really big author-names in trade publishing are still under-remunerated. And as Jason Epstein has pointed out, the brand-name authors really don’t need publishers anyway. They need printing, publicity and distribution services, to be sure. But there are other places to get those besides Clapham & Irons. If, at some point in the future, the brand-name authors desert the big-name publishers, some observers are going to think that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving group of people.

In another place (page 132 of The Truth about Writing, to be precise), I declared that the nature of British book publishing over the last 50 or 60 years could be summed up in the two-word phrase ‘amateur night’. Eric de Bellaigue has produced nothing to persuade me that this description is unfair or unreasonable.

Of course amateurs have much to recommend them: they are enthusiastic, willing to work hard for little or no recompense; and their knowledge often puts that of ‘professionals’ to shame. But at the end of the day there is nothing (in my estimation) to beat a fully qualified, well trained, hard-nosed professional. And that is what British book publishing, all too often, lacks.

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