The State of Publishing: 1

[A short review written by Chris Priest in 1996. The book was regarded by many people in the trade to be a reliable guide to the state of British publishing in the 1990s. The contributors are all well known in the book trade, exceptionally well qualified to know what is going on. There is no one quite like a book trade insider, indeed, to tell authors what a terrible state their industry is in. (Just about the first words in the book, from Owen’s introduction, are: “During the past decade, book trade conditions have worsened.” This is a familiar complaint made to authors, whenever they seek better terms or more money for their work.) Since 1996 conditions have no doubt worsened even more. Yet more and more titles are published every year, immense advances are still paid to a handful of writers, book trade insiders continue to live in rather nice houses in London. Publishing Now was first published in 1993 — this was the revised edition.

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Publishing Now, edited by Peter Owen (Peter Owen Publishers, 1996)

Publishing Now by Peter OwenMy most recent hardcover novel The Prestige had a shelf-life, in the big London booksellers at least, of less than a week. In next to no time the book sold out, but the shops believed the market for hardback fiction to be so poor that they weren’t prepared to re-order, except on a single-copy basis for individual customers. My novel was effectively obsolete in under a week.

You can’t help feeling that in any other retail trade to discontinue a successful line would be seen as bad business. Of course, it is bad business, but experiences like this are common in the book world.

Surprisingly, the book trade remains somehow profitable. According to the Society of Authors (which monitors these things) virtually every British publisher showed a significant increase in sales last year, and many of them — including Reed, Little Brown, Dorling Kindersley and Bloomsbury — enjoyed greatly increased profits. Even when a publisher is visibly on the slippery slope, its sale can make millionaires of its main shareholders, as happened when the cash-strapped Jonathan Cape was sold a few years ago. The whole question of an overall publishing decline is, to say the least, debatable.

One of the best ways to hasten disaster is of course to become obsessed with it to the exclusion of almost anything else. Peter Owen’s revised edition of his 1993 title Publishing Now is a collection of essays written by eighteen book trade insiders, a new edition being deemed necessary after the Net Book Agreement collapsed last year. I didn’t see the first edition, and the present book lacks proper copyright notices, so it’s difficult to tell which articles have been rewritten. You do sense that the more anxious of them are probably the revisions.

After an introductory jeremiad from Mr Owen himself (demise of the library system, less fiction being reviewed, sales declining, etc), the book opens with a brisk and remarkable article by Richard Charkin, former head of the profitable Reed Group. In this, Mr Charkin offers eleven radical solutions to the mess we are all said to be in. It’s an extraordinary list, and includes the following surprising remedies: increase authors’ royalties and pay them monthly, reduce top executives’ salaries, embrace technology, increase training budgets fivefold, abolish the Publishers Association, and more.

To most of these you find yourself cheering noisily in agreement as you read. If only, if only! Afterwards, you can’t help wondering where Mr Charkin was, so to speak, while running Reed. Wasn’t Reed the first trade publisher to breach the Net Book Agreement? And was this perhaps one of the reasons the entire Reed list was later put up for sale?

After Mr Charkin’s dazzling start, the rest of the book follows a more pedestrian course. There are several essays on technical subjects like production, promotion, spoken word publishing, academic books, and so on, and with a few exceptions these are written factually but in general terms. One hopes that the publishers would not accept and print work as lacklustre as this from their own authors.

As is often the case, though, when the writing veers towards the specific, the anecdotal, or even the mildly gossipy, then one’s interest again sparks up. In this way Peter Straus on paperback format, Gerald Howard on American publishing, and Giles Gordon on agents, all make this a book worth dipping into. But it lacks an index, to its discredit, and its bibliography is unremittingly technical — no recommendations here to the lively memoirs of, say, Fred Warburg, Stanley Unwin, Jeremy Lewis, Michael Joseph and so on.

All Mr Owen’s contributors skate around the central modern dilemma, which is that the core business of trade publishers is, or used to be, selling books from their backlist, but these days everyone is searching for the instant best-seller. The two are rarely the same. The Prestige had less than a week to find this out, and regrettably, in this climate of communicable crisis, an increasing number of other titles are doing so too.