The State of Publishing: 3

Here are the opening words of a book called The Adventure of Publishing, written by one of the best-known publishers in Britain:

“The 2000s were bad years for the book trade. The sale of new books fell steadily. This was especially true of novels and books of general interest, and it is books of this kind, always most vulnerable in difficult times, that I shall be mainly concerned with in the following pages.

“Many first novels sold only two or three hundred copies, involving their publisher in a loss. Occasionally a best-seller turned up, but for the most part it was only possible to survive if you had a good back list (every publisher’s dream, for the old books sell themselves without benefit of costly advertising and promotion), or if you were uncommonly lucky.

“Between 2001 and 2009 twenty-one well-known firms of book publishers went out of business. Several promising young publishers were obliged to amalgamate with bigger and stronger firms. Even old-established houses lived precariously on the proceeds of old books. A few young publishers held on in the late 2000s by the skin of their teeth. I know, for I was one of them.”

The Adventure of Publishing Michael JosephTo any watcher of the worlds of publishing and book-selling during recent years, these comments must be grindingly familiar. Bad news from the book trade sometimes seems to be the only news there is.

The principal novelty about the above quote is that it is not modern at all. It was written in 1949 by the then-independent publisher Michael Joseph. To restore his original text, simply deduct 70 years from every date mentioned above.

The point? Nothing apparently changes. People who work at senior levels in publishing or book-selling are inveterate and habitual complainers, constantly moaning about their business, in such consistent ways that you can’t help wondering what is really going on.

This constant sense of pervading gloom is not shared by workers at lower levels, nor by the majority of authors. Most people get involved with books because they love them, or because they are committed to literature, or because they believe, quite simply, in the power, enduring quality and sheer entertainment value of the written word. In this they clearly match the interests and beliefs of most readers.