Category Archives: british

In 1954 quite a few bright publishers secretly believed this

Muriel Spark’s fictional recollection of the London publishing world in A Far Cry from Kensington is a meandering tale that tells us something about the ways in which young ladies in the 1950s acquired “a job in publishing”, lost it, and found another.

There are several astute observations, including reference to “the common fallacy which assumes that if a person is a good, vivacious talker he is bound to be a good writer”. Her first, subsequently bankrupt and imprisoned employer, “had another, special illusion: he felt that men and women of upper-class background and education were bound to have advantages of talent over writers of more modest origins”.

The narrator adds: “In 1954 quite a few bright publishers secretly believed this”. In 2018, many still do.

Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988

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Tite and Snobby or Doolittle and Dalley?

The River Girl by Wendy Cope appeared in 1991 with lovely brush illustrations by Nicholas Garland. The narrative poem tells the tale of a young writer who, inspired by the river girl muse, becomes a great literary success. This does not make him a nice person and the river girl eventually leaves.

In John Didde’s search for a publisher we learn something about the (fictional) world of poetry publishing in Britain towards the end of the twentieth century.

Last month he sent his work to Tite and Snobby,
The publishers. Now he must wait and wonder
If it will go down well with that famed poet,
Tite’s editor, the dreaded Clinton Thunder.

He knows it’s good but will Clint Thunder like it?
Or will he have to try the Hatchet Press
Up North, or even Doolittle and Dalley?
And what if nobody at all says yes?

What curious names publishers have.

Wendy Cope, The River Girl, 1991

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On the shelf

In Austin Dobson’s A Bookman’s Budget of 1917, the compiler reproduces one of his own poems (On the Shelf first published in Methuen’s Annual) concerning the history of the books on the aforementioned shelf. The poem contains the following lines that provide a fitting description of much publishing, valid as much in 2017 as they were a hundred years ago.

I was one of three hundred. First twenty went off,
‘Complimentary copies,’ for critics to scoff,
Who were kind, on the whole. Other eighty were sold
(Less so much in the shilling); then, shop-worn and old,
And so for all saleable purposes dead,
We were promptly ‘remaindered’ at twopence a head.

Austin Dobson, A Bookman’s Budget, 1917

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Angel’s publisher and life-long friend

There are two men in the life of the eponymous Edwardian novelist in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1957 novel Angel. She adores and marries one, the painter Esmé Howe-Nevinson. He is a wastrel and a philanderer, loses a leg in the 1914-18 war and dies a frustrated and disappointed man. The other is Theo Gilbright who survives her to become her literary executor. As it says in her will, he is Angel’s ‘publisher and life-long friend’.

The relationship between Angel and Theo – though much distrusted by Theo’s wife Hermione – is platonic and professional, and critical to the writer’s career. Angel is initially a ‘gold mine’ for the publishing house of Gilbright and Brace, but Theo remains loyal even when her books are no longer popular and the firm no longer feels able to publish her. She can no longer write and her fame lives on only in the tinned butter received during the next war in a food parcel from Australia, where some ‘old admirer of Angel’s books had sent it from the backwoods, where only, it seemed, they were ever read now’.

This testimony to the relationship between writers and publishers may no longer represent the world where agents hold sway and publishers no longer have such close relationships with or commitment to their authors, but one telling detail may still hold some truth.

When Theo is unhappy with some detail of Angel’s writing, he does not confront her head on, but says that changes are demanded or suggested by a fictional publisher’s reader, Mr. Delbanco. This tactic avoids any extreme conflict or needless unpleasantness in the publisher-author relationship, and one suspects such a ruse is still used today by clever book people.

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel, 1957

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Mr Big Nose, our publisher

I have been sent a couple of pages of The 13-Storey Treehouse, one of which contains a picture of Mr Big Nose, a publisher who is demanding his book from the hapless authors.

They make the following observation.

We were a little behind schedule. Well when I say ‘a little behind schedule’, I mean a lot behind schedule. And when I say ‘a lot behind schedule’, I mean a LOT LOT LOT behind schedule.

As authors meet their publishers this week at London Book Fair, one can imagine many such encounters. Let’s hope the publishers are more understanding than Mr Big Nose.

 

Andy Griffiths (author) and Terry Denton (illustrator), The 13-Storey Treehouse, 2015

I apprehend caducity

“I apprehend caducity” says Bennett in Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, a book that shows us different aspects of ageing.

The cast of older people write and read books, and they are not always against the digital, even though they come from an era when “even university press publishing parties aspired to glamour”. They read their i-pads and kindles, while still reserving a special place for the printed book. The writers have rows with their publishers “over e-books and royalties on reprints”, and can complain as so many do: “We never got to grips with the contracts for the e-books, I think the publishers took him for a ride”.

One of the characters, Teresa, dies as the result of a fall when trying to reach a book on her library shelves, but her son will never know which book it was: “Nobody will ever know. She has taken this small secret with her, and will shortly take it to her grave in St Mary’s churchyard, Kensal Green”.

Caducity: look it up.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises, 2016

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Who exactly buys “art books”?

‘Who exactly buys “art books”?’ Widmerpool asks in Volume 2 of A Dance to the Music of Time, the sort of difficult question the newcomer to publishing may be asked at any party, and not always one that can be answered convincingly.

His questions became more searching when I tried to give an account of that side of publishing, and my own part in it. After further explanations, he said: ‘It doesn’t sound to me like a very serious job.’

Widmerpool advises the narrator: ‘You should look for something more promising. From what you say, you do not even seem to keep very regular hours.’

The answer is revealing about one of the pleasures of a publishing career in former times: ‘That’s its great advantage.’

Anthony Powell, A Buyer’s Market, 1952

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What’s in it for writers (and publishers) at Mold-on-Wold?

At a time when the Society of Authors and various big name writers are campaigning to get fees for those who perform at literary festivals in the UK, it’s interesting to read Mark McCrum’s Fest. Set at the Mold-on-Wold Literary Festival, the book has a broad cast of authors, critics and other literary hangers-on – but no publishers. The few mentions that are made of publishing don’t show any great respect for the profession. No doubt if they had appeared, they would be bumped off unceremoniously in this complicated who-dun-it.

Given that the book is published under McCrum’s own Prospero Press imprint, perhaps there is a broader lesson for publishers who don’t support their writers in efforts to get suitable fees for public appearances. The murders at Mold-on-Wold don’t seem to hurt attendance figures, so perhaps publishers should take note and support their authors before it’s too late.

Mark McCrum, Fest, 2014

Nice office for a struggling publisher

For Christmas, the BBC is showing a film that has a publisher for a central character. The trailer for Not Another Happy Ending can be seen here.

The first impression is that everyone is suitably good looking and Tom Duvall, described as the editor of a struggling publishing company, has a spiffy flat-cum-office. I gave it a watch, and so can you – available until this Saturday on i-Player.

The film contains the memorable line: “You are frankly about the most infuriating person I ever met, which considering I work in Scottish publishing is saying something.”

Not Another Happy Ending, 2013  –  Director: John McKay

Times change for a Soho Boy

In Funny Girl by Nick Hornby,“Bill didn’t know what you were supposed to do with books you’d written yourself. He didn’t know any publishers. He didn’t know any literary agents”.

Surprisingly, his novel Diary of a Soho Boy (about homosexuality when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain), is published by Braun and Braun and is a great success, “or as much of a success as it was possible to be when half the bookshops in London wouldn’t stock it and most of the newspapers wouldn’t review it”. It’s a one-shot wonder. Bill cannot make a long-term career as a novelist.

“It wasn’t the pursuit of art that impoverished Bill; he just didn’t work hard enough, and when he did write, he wrote the wrong things. Diary of a Soho Boy has done well, but he’d taken too long to write his second book, and his second book, when it finally appeared, was almost identical to its predecessor.”

Bill’s main job is as a writer of situation comedies, and eventually he goes back to this, but the sexuality of his characters has changed, as have the times he lives in.

“Diary of a Soho Boy was old hat now. It was still in print, but only students of gay history wanted to read it these days. Twenty-first-century homosexuals in Britain had their own literature, different lives, new problems. Fear of imprisonment wasn’t one of them. It had gone the way of polio and rickets.”

Nick Hornby, Funny Girl, 2014

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