The State of Publishing: 2

[A review written by CP in 1994, for The Author, the quarterly magazine published by the Society of Authors. This article may be downloaded, but may not be uploaded or printed elsewhere.]

As I Was Saying by Gordon Graham (Hans Zell Publishers)

As I Was Saying by Gordon GrahamA genial book by a man with forty years in publishing behind him. The trenchancy of the title (it’s the sort of thing people say after they’ve been interrupted, and insist on finishing their point) is not reflected in the text, which to a great extent meanders harmlessly through a series of publishing preoccupations. These include copyright, territories, book fairs, photocopying, take-overs, CD-ROM, libraries, universities. Everything is a bit higgledy-piggledy: each of the essays has a dateline but in many cases they’re not in date order, and it’s hard to see the relevance of the location. One such is “Absecon, New Jersey” — since there’s nothing else but motels in Absecon I wonder if he was holed up for the night in the same down-at-heel place I was once in. (Although as he was on expenses, he was probably in the posher one across the road.)

The writing is soporific throughout, because much of the book is written in generalizations. Here’s a short sample:

“Through this period there has been less thoughtful dialogue than mutual interest deserves. It has been a free-running situation, with all the secrecy and tension that go with acquisitions and which do not always lead to better publishing afterwards.”

After a few pages of this you start craving for an anecdote or two, or a bit of gossip, but Mr Graham drones on unstoppably. What emerges, inadvertently, is the realization that he has spent his publishing career seeing only one part of the business. From the evidence of his own account, for four decades Mr Graham has been either deliberately or unconsciously ignoring the existence of writers. No exaggeration, this. Each of his chapters has a heading: Copyright, Librarians, Prices, and so on. Chapter 9 is called Authors. It occupies 18 of the 250 pages, and comprises four short essays. The first of these is about the difference in physical size between British and American text books. The second is about the imminence (in 1980) of electronic publishing. The third, a year later, is about electronic publishing. The fourth is about the relationship between publishers and academics.

On page 178 Mr Graham describes an author as someone who needs his/her hand holding; on page 167 authors are depicted as lonely figures; and in an earlier passage, page 42, he describes authors’ behaviour in bookshops as typically either shy or sly while collecting evidence about the publisher’s commercial performance, for later indignation about same. With the exception of a few more passing references (all of which are misleadingly noted in the index as main entries) that’s about it.

Is there anything about the real concerns of writers over the last few decades? The Minimum Terms Agreement, for instance? (No.) The campaign for a Public Lending Right? (No.) The advent of moral rights? (No.) The emergence and influence of book packaging companies? (No.) The insidious erosion of royalty rates, and the drastic effects of high discounts on authors’ incomes? (No.) The polarization of advances, in which a handful of authors are fabulously overpaid, while the rest remain woefully underpaid? (No.)

The explanation for this must be that Mr Graham adheres to an unspoken governing principle found in many areas of the book trade, notably in senior echelons of sales departments. Provided that publishers act in their own best interests, the theory goes, authors will be the eventual beneficiaries. It is a form of the Thatcherite “trickle-down” economic policy, which states, wrongly, that if you feather the nests of the rich, the poor will benefit from the resultant general increase in prosperity.

It’s true that the interests of publisher and author often coincide, but certainly not always. If that were the case no contract would ever be necessary between the two parties, literary agents would not exist, and there would be no need for the Society of Authors.
That such differences do exist is by no means always a bad thing, because some of them are relatively harmless. For this reason, writers are on the whole content with the arrangement. But it is an incautious writer who, once the manuscript has been accepted, does not keep an eye on what follows. Publishers are equally well advised to keep tabs on their authors. Enlightened self-interest requires each party to be well informed about the activities, intentions and needs of the other.

Remaindering is a clear example of differing interests. The publisher wants to clear his warehouse, reduce his overheads and release some of his capital, but the author’s royalty estate is substantially reduced and the value of the remaindered title becomes almost irreparably harmed, in that other publishers are unlikely to want to reissue it afterwards. (What does Mr Graham have to say about remaindering? Nothing.)

Remaindering is not the only example. Mr Graham highlights another, coming back to it so often that you can’t help thinking about the authors’ agenda he never mentions. He refers to the fact that books are often sold abroad “at prices substantially higher than those on which [authors’] royalties are calculated.” He adds, “… it is simply not practical for a publisher, once he has sold a book [through the trade] … to control where and how and at what price the book is ultimately sold.”

This is probably true, but is only half the story. Although the publisher indeed cannot maintain his retail price everywhere (he can in the UK, at present), the payment of royalties is linked to that price, except in certain circumstances. The link is a contractual one and cannot be argued away. But authors find it almost impossible to make a decent income from books sold outside the UK. By a policy of heavy discounting, to try to keep American publishers out of markets coveted on both sides of the Atlantic, British publishers only have to account to their authors on a percentage-of-receipts basis. So in these high-pricing overseas markets which are contractually exclusive to British publishers (Australia is prime amongst them), authors are up against an unfair, unreasonable and tight-fisted commercial system. It’s high time publishers addressed this situation frankly, not only distributing and pricing their books properly, but paying their authors the full royalty on the retail price.

Mr Graham has nothing to say about any of this, but confines himself to grumbles about the American publishers who are up to the same tricks.

All the time I was reading I was struck by the irony that with this book Gordon Graham has now become an author. I kept wondering, not without mischief, what he thought of publishing from this side of the fence. Was the title his own choice, for instance? Did the publisher consult him about the cover design, the blurb, the typography … and if not, is he pleased with the final result?

When he signed his contract, did he understand all the verbose clauses, and was he fully satisfied with the terms he was offered? Did he perhaps check the contract against the Minimum Terms Agreement? (Hans Zell Publishers are a part of the Reed Group, which has not yet signed the MTA.) Did the publishers pay up the advance promptly? Did they make him pay for the index, or did they pay for it themselves, or was the cost shared between both parties? Did Hans Zell publish the book when they said they would? Did they advertise it adequately? Is it being widely reviewed?

And for the future: let us hope that Mr Graham finds his royalty statements are sent to him promptly, and that when he tries to decipher them he can work out exactly how the book has been doing, how many copies were printed, and how many remain in the warehouse.

Let us also hope that on his next trip to Australia he doesn’t find the book on sale at two-and-a-half times its British cover price. (And notice on the next royalty statement that a surprising number of copies were sold off cheaply, thereby denying him his proper royalties.)

When the book is finally remaindered, let’s hope he has a chance to buy up the copies before they are sold quietly to a dealer for a pittance (and that the price he’s asked for isn’t larger than the one the dealer would be paying).

And lastly let’s hope that he remembers to register himself for Public Lending Right, thereby acknowledging the quarter-century of campaigning that went on without his apparently hearing about it. Maybe he will become a member of the Society, if he hasn’t already done so?