The literary world has lost some legendary figures in the past couple of years. One was Jeremy Lewis, the chronicler of the golden age of British publishing who died last April.
I spoke to him in January about how publishing has changed since his heyday. “Publishers used to be household names” he told me. Towering figures such as George Weidenfeld, Andre Deutsch and Peter Owen, emigre Jews from Central Europe who transformed British publishing, were often better-known than their authors. Deutsch died in 2000 and both Owen and Weidenfeld died last year.
“Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and Carmen Callil founder of Virago were regulars in the gossip columns,” Lewis noted. When Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books died in 1970 it was front page news.
Lewis wrote a series of memoirs about his time in publishing. I was surprised by the sheer amount of drinking that went on. Like advertising—as so evocatively depicted in Mad Men—publishing was an industry lubricated with alcohol.
At editorial meetings at Andre Deutsch there would be wine. Lewis writes of working with Kingsley Amis on the New Oxford Book of Light Verse where they would start on the white wine at 11am on the dot. Deals were done over long liquid lunches at clubs and restaurants in London and New York.
Editors could make instant decisions over a boozy lunch because they wielded tremendous power. Sales, marketing and publicity were junior professions possessing no say over acquisitions. It was entirely up to the editor what was published.
But in the last 30 years publishing has changed profoundly. Publishers have got bigger and bigger. The largest was created in 2013 when Penguin merged with Random House. Next biggest are Hachette who consist of Hodder (where I started my career), Headline, Little, Brown, Orion and many other smaller publishers.
Editors now have to build a consensus with sales often having the final word. From my own days in publishing, I remember the soul-destroying corporate speak of editorial meetings: ‘going forward’ ‘KPI—Key Performance Indicator’ and, oddest of all, ‘pre-mortems’—a budget sheet that editors filled out before acquiring a book.
One can hardly blame publishers for becoming risk-averse when sales are usually so poor. Nielsen, the company that track book sales, published data showing that in 2001 the average novel sold 1152 copies. Now it’s 263.
Even high-profile authors are suffering. In spite of blanket media coverage Norwegian literary sensation Karl Ove Knausgård’s latest book Some Rain Must Fall has sold just over 2000 copies since it was published in March 2016.
The industry began to change in the 1990s. The ending of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 meant that supermarkets began selling discounted books which paved the way for Amazon.
Bestselling author and journalist, Francis Wheen, however, thinks the rot set in as early as the 1980s. He told me: “I proposed to Gail [Rebuck of newly-formed publishing house Century] that we should discuss a new travel book over lunch at the Reform Club, saying that this would be most auspicious since the Reform was where Around The World in Eighty Days started.
“I even offered to pay—but no, Gail said we would have the meeting at their office over bought-in sandwiches and mineral water, thank you very much. I abandoned my travel book there and then.”
I caught the tail end of the long lunch culture during my time in publishing. We were told quite firmly not to let one author, a well-known cricket writer, to get hold of the wine list. Another writer I worked with used to attack lunch as if he hadn’t eaten or drunk for weeks. He’d have a cocktail to start, a bottle with the meal and then order a brandy afterwards. It all seems like a long time ago now.
Jeremy Lewis referred to the change wrought by publishers becoming corporations as the “Perrier Culture.” He reflected, “You have to be sober to deal with all that.”
But have we seen an improvement in the publishing industry as a result of this sobriety? The writer Roger Lewis (a relative of Jeremy Lewis’s) thinks not. He said: “The point really is that ever since sparkling water came in and boozy publishers’ lunches got the heave-ho there has been no actual improvement in English literature. No discernible improvement whatsoever.”
The market has become polarized between the authors who sell in large quantities and those who sell next to nothing and advances reflect this. Philip Gwyn Jones, one of London’s most experienced publishers with stints at Harper Collins, Granta and now Scribe, told me about “the evaporation of mid-list. Nowadays advances are either under £25k or over £100k.”
Paying large amounts is a way to get attention both in house and without. It’s a sign of a lack of confidence. Big books are hyped up by literary agents who “skew the market” according to Ros Porter from Granta magazine. Agents have become increasingly influential as most publishers now don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.
It’s becoming harder for editors to work on instinct: “To what extent are we cowing younger commissioning editors in larger houses?” asks publisher Gwyn Jones. “Takes a lot to defy the board. Collective responsibility encourages a conservatism.”
Yet despite these woes, there is still some inspiration out there. Christopher Maclehose, who has an eponymous imprint within Hachette, is the man behind the Scandi crime invasion. He first published Henning Mankell while at Harvill and then had the vision to spot a bestseller in a clunky badly-translated thriller by a dead Swedish journalist by the name of Stieg Larsson.
Larger than life personalities still stalk the corridors of publishing houses. Figures such as Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury and Jamie Byng at Canongate function as ambassadors for their firms, their authors and literature in general. When Canongate won the Booker Prize with Yann Martel’s the Life of Pi in 2001, many newspapers were more interested in Byng than the author. Byng with his trademark poodle hair is probably the nearest thing we have today to a publishing celebrity but I doubt even he is widely known outside the industry.
Ravi Mirchandani at Picador is more low key but he has a formidable reputation within the industry for, as agent Charlie Campbell puts it, ‘swimming against Nielsen.’ “Spending too much time paying attention to what previous books sold is not particularly helpful when acquiring literary fiction. A publisher’s job is, in part, predicting what the public might think” Mirchandani told me. He points out that pre-Corrections, Jonathan Franzen sold woefully.
But sometimes risk can still break out from consensus. Mirchandani gave me the example of a book he recently acquired about a woman with a genital birth defect. Despite liking the book he was reluctant to publish it mainly because he didn’t want to keep saying the phrase “genital birth defect”. But the finance director persuaded him they should do it.
Yet as publishing conglomerates get bigger and less nimble, it presents an opportunity for small presses. Galley Beggar press had a massive success in 2013 with A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, a book that took eight years of rejections before it was finally published.
Ben Yarde Buller, the founder of Old Street Press, whose books have won the IMPAC—the world’s richest literary prize—outlined his unconventional accounting approach for me: “I do a profit and loss spreadsheet. If I like a book and the numbers don’t work, then I change the numbers. ”
In private most publishers curse Amazon because it eats into their profits and author royalties, and puts the traditional bookseller out of business. But it can be a boon for the small boys. The highly-rated Humfrey Hunter from Silvertail press, a one man publishing house, is “very very pro-Amazon, I wouldn’t have a business without them. They open up the world for a company like mine.”
Hunter was the only British publisher brave enough to publish Lawrence Wright’s American bestseller on Scientology and scandalously also penned an article in the Bookseller in favor of leaving the European Union.
Despite all the changes, one of the reassuring things about publishing is that even in the vast super companies, reading is still widespread and the heads still come from a publishing background rather than being outside corporate types. “It’s still a business governed by instinct and charisma- that hasn’t changed,” Philip Gwyn Jones told me.
And most publishing deals are still done over lunch, they just tend not to be terribly long or boozy. As for me, I left publishing in 2015 to pursue a career as a drink writer, covering an industry that still knows how to lunch.