Many people complain about publishers. Authors complain about being neglected, readers about being misled by blurbs and hype, reviewers about bad or non-existent editing, literary editors about general inefficiency, and nearly everyone who has ever tried to contact a publisher about not finding them in their offices – and not having their calls or emails returned.
I have worked in publishing for nearly 20 years. Has it changed? Not as far as grumbles about the industry are concerned. Indeed, anyone who has read Joseph Conrad’s moanings about how his books were mismanaged, or Trollope’s accounts of publishers’ nefarious dealings, will know that publishers have never been held in very high esteem. But there have been major changes in recent years, most strikingly brought about by technological innovations. Books now have to compete in the “leisure sector” against DVDs and iTunes, as well as with the arrival of electronic books such as the Kindle, which can download a whole library from Amazon.
Publishers over-provide for their audience (115,420 books were published in the UK last year); and more, as Kingsley Amis long ago predicted, means worse. It also means that big books get bigger while smaller books get sidelined. Often a publisher’s best efforts go into championing and promoting memoirs or novels by celebrities who, as likely as not, haven’t even written them themselves – and who have been paid gigantic advances that have to be recouped. Meanwhile, splendid books of high calibre are given scant care and attention and so – unsurprisingly – they don’t sell. It has always been a business about money, but publishing seems now to be focused on quantity rather than quality.
Luck is the thing all publishers (and authors) dream about. It happened with The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and, 20 or so years later, in a fictional reincarnation, with The Da Vinci Code. Luck (or its cousin, word of mouth) helped a host of other books, including A Brief History of Time, Fatherland, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Fermat’s Last Theorem and Schott’s Original Miscellany. But luck can’t be relied on. (Luck, in recent years, largely consists of getting on to a Richard and Judy Book Club list, which can transform an obscure title into a mega-bestseller.)