On 3 May I wrote a piece about the Macmillan New Writing imprint. This is an initiative which I warmly welcomed, but I had to point out that many other observers were less than happy about it, some indeed calling it a scam.
Now, via booktrade.info, I note that Robert McCrum has put in his twopenny-worth. And he doesn't like the Macmillan deal either. In fact he is pretty damn rude about it, though he does have some interesting things to say along the way.
McCrum argues that the days of taste and literary discrimination at Macmillan are over. Worse, he says, the new writing wheeze 'appears to have emanated not from the deepest counsels of the editorial department, but from marketing and distribution.' Macmillan says that 'some great authors just get lost in the ether', and they want to find them. But McCrum describes this as an 'astounding abdication of cultural responsibility.'
Dear God. A publisher who is concerned about finding new authors, and about making a profit. How appalling.
I very definitely get the feeling that McCrum is not thinking straight here. He appears to be advocating a return to the old days, when editors with literary tastes decided what was published, without concern for the bottom line. But that policy can hardly be said to have been a great success at Faber, when McCrum was in charge, can it? Or am I missing something?
And in any case, what's all this crap about cultural responsibility? I don't want publishers holding themselves responsible for my culture, thank you very much. I can grow my own.
The last few paragraphs of McCrum's piece were the ones that fascinated me, however. Because however confused Mr M may be on some points, he sure as hell has his ear to the ground.
McCrum refers to the 'dismal editorial conditions prevailing in British (and American) publishing houses'; and I agree with him on that, though I suspect that we would differ greatly on how they are dismal.
He refers to the 'desperation rife among editorial cohorts', and indeed they are desperate. Desperate to find big sellers, and scarcely an idea among the lot of them as to how to do it.
It is, he says, a small market; and he's right there. The book business is tiny compared with most. If I remember the figures correctly, the market for books is about the same size as the market for bagged salad.
And, most significant of all, he tells us that 'several major imprints are struggling.'
Now that has the ring of truth. And truth is what you seldom hear in publishing, particularly where the financial state of the company is concerned.
From time to time all the big companies put out statements saying how well they are doing. Often they quote the magic figure of a 10% return on capital, because that's what the City investors want to hear. But if you believe all that you will believe that the moon is made of green cheese.
Robert Maxwell proved decades ago that company accounts can be made to yield any result you want, and since then we have had ample proof that some auditors will sign off anything if you pay them enough in consultancy fees. But McCrum says that several major imprints are struggling, and that publishing is 'an industry hovering on the brink of crisis.'
Food for thought there, my friends.