Publish and be Out to Lunch

Standpoint’s Mole inside the publishing world bemoans the fact that it’s more about marketing than quality

Literature Media Modern Life Publishing The Mole

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.)

In the past, editors could mainly rely on their own judgments about the quality and potential saleability of a book. Now they have to spend many hours convincing colleagues in all departments of the soundness and marketability of their choices. This means they have rather less time actually to edit than they did 10 or 20 years ago. So books are rushed through the editorial process — grammar and punctuation are neglected due to a lazy “the author knows best” mentality and books don’t get proofed properly. Even the indices in academic titles can be all over the place.

One author who had been published in the 1960s went to see his publisher in the late 1990s and was dumbstruck to see that the editorial department was no longer a dozen-strong: it was now staffed by three. This is a result of the slow corporate downsizing of the editorial process, where the middle-ranking editors have been eased out. Today copy-editing and proofing are frequently delegated to freelancers and rigorous checks are not made.

Not surprisingly, mistakes blossom: early editions of one paperback had its author born in 1906, not 1960. More recently, in Ferdinand Mount’s memoir Cold Cream, “Trooping of the Colour” (instead of “Trooping the Colour”) went uncorrected by editor, copy-editor and proof reader. In another book the composer Anton Bruckner’s surname was spelt like Anita Brookner’s throughout. Such slips would be much less likely to get into print in the USA, where The New Yorker-style obsession with fact-checking ensures properly edited texts.

But the problems are not just caused by the pressures of time and the market. The lack of cultural knowledge throughout the trade is staggering. I know of one publisher’s assistant (now working as a foreign rights manager in a large conglomerate) who had never heard of CP Snow. She had a degree from Oxford. Another author went to meet his publicist to talk about his book, which touched on politics in the mid 20th century. “Profumo Affair?” asked the PR girl. “What’s that?”

And then there’s the sheer incompetence. There are countless examples: one high-profile author, whose memoirs had just been published, asked, at a meeting for the publicity for her book, whom to get in touch with at the Guardian Media pages. There was a long silence. “I’ll get back to you on that”, said the publicist, whose job it was to know such things ­— another way of saying “search me”.

At another meeting it was announced that a “brilliant” website was going up in January. It didn’t appear until the end of March. A successful author, whose book had won a Whitbread prize, was horrified to find, when the paperback edition was published, that the words “Winner of the …” did not appear on the cover, nor anywhere inside the book. The publishers promised to make up for this gaffe by putting a sticker on the cover. They did — but only for shops in London.

A book reviewer, who had written a favourable review of a hardback published by a certain company, subsequently received six or seven packages of paperbacks from that company over the course of the following month, in the hope, presumably, that he would somehow manage to review some or all of them (he had never reviewed paperbacks). This adds up to about £670-worth of books, plus about £90 spent on postage. No-one from the publisher called or wrote to ask the reviewer’s opinion or explain the purpose of this extravagance.

One factor which contributes to all this carelessness and inattention is the well-established ritual of the publishers’ lunch. It’s true that in these days of the New Labour Austerity Lunch Hour, such meals (or most of them) are no longer two-bottles-of-wine affairs — but they can still last until 4.30 or even later. A two-hour lunch on top of endless management meetings, cover meetings, marketing meetings and meetings about meetings explain, at least in part, why it’s so difficult to find an editor or a PR person at their desks, especially in the afternoon.

When do these people read? Perhaps on Fridays, when you’ll hardly ever reach a publisher, especially if he or she is on “summer hours”. “Summer hours” allow publishers to have Friday afternoons off. In exchange they’re supposed to put in a bit more office time during the rest of the week — or that’s the idea. It could be argued that more was achieved in the old two-bottle-lunch days.

Devil May Care, the new James Bond novel written by Sebastian Faulks, sold nearly 45,000 copies in the first four days it was on sale. No luck needed there. Indeed, many publishers have stopped trying to make their luck. They no longer lead the market, they are being led by it. The publishing world has lost its confidence and its cultural significance. It’ll be lucky to get it back. But then, it has always been lucky — so far.