Category Archives: fictional publishers

It’s better to offer authors more

Michael Mont, the fledgling publisher in To Let, the third volume of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, puts Soames right on the matter of author payments.

‘People are quite on the wrong track in offering less than they can afford to give; they ought to offer more, and work backwards.’

Soames raised his eyebrows.

‘Suppose the more is accepted?’

‘That doesn’t matter a little bit,’ said Mont; ‘it’s much more paying to abate a price than to increase it. For instance, say we offer an author good terms – he naturally takes them. Then we go into it, find we can’t publish at a decent profit and tell him so. He’s got confidence in us because we’ve been so generous to him, and he comes down like a lamb, and bears us no malice. But if we offer him poor terms at the start, he doesn’t take them, so we have to advance them to get him, and he thinks us damned screws into the bargain.’

I wonder if any current publisher considers this argument when negotiating terms with an author or their agent.

John Galsworthy, To Let, 1921

Kabuff or Wunderkammer?

Fictional publishers often appear at international book fairs. The setting gives writers the chance to introduce new characters, engineer plot twists and inject the frisson of drunken conversations and illicit sex. The Frankfurt Kabuff, Blaire Squiscoll’s recent work, adds a new twist to this, functioning as a mesmerising deconstruction of what it means to be a publisher and what it means to hang out with publishers at such events. It combines many old publishing tropes, sometimes seeming to be more of a Wunderkammer than a Kabuff.

The central character, Beatrice Deft, is not a publisher but she is someone who loves books, believes in their power to change lives.  She is old school: she smokes, she drinks, she eats meat (there is a flashback subplot of violence against an immigrant at a chicken shop in Australia – don’t ask), she flies. Deft enjoys sex (and Sekt) with Caspian, the hunky German cop, of whom we learn little except for his badge number (6969) and the way he wields his impressive baton.

After a violent intervention by the right-wingers surrounding a publishing firm called White Storm – put down with the help of Tante Fran and the knitting book club – the old left-wing publisher Kurt Weidenfeld steps down from his position at Linksphilosophie Verlag in favour of Adriana, Lotte Frankel takes over from the wannabe demagogue Kristoff Weil, and Beatrice begins a new career as an international publishing consultant, travelling the world to protect international books from future terrorist attacks. The publishing patriarchy is being overturned.

As Beatrice prepares to jet off on her new mission, the familiar figure of a strapping blond catches her attention. There will be further adventures, but they had better hurry, because this old world of international publishing will soon be brought to a juddering halt, not, as this story suggests, by the threat of right-wing terrorism, but by the surveillance state it has created, the security apparatus it spawned, and – in this time of climate breakdown – the impossibility of sustaining all that smoking, drinking, meat-eating and carbon-fuelled travel that are at the core of the international book fair circuit.

Blaire Squiscoll, The Frankfurt Kabuff, 2019

Madame Verdurin and the publisher

More than two thousand pages into À la recherche du temps perdu there is a brief mention of a Paris publisher who is said to have attended Madame Verdurin’s salon.

Un grand éditeur de Paris venu en visite, et qui avait pensé qu’on le retiendrait, s’en alla brutalement, avec rapidité, comprenant qu’il n’était pas assez élégant pour le petit clan. C’état un homme grand et fort, très brun, studieux, avec quelque chose de tranchant. Il avait l’air d’un couteau à papier en ébène.

This publisher had little in common with the tastes of the ‘fidèles’ and was not going to be constrained by their pretentious desire to dictate artistic taste. Now that’s what needed, cutting edge publishers with gravitas.

Elizabeth Taylor goes from bookshop to plantation

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In Shillingworth-On-Thames Elizabeth Taylor is swept of her feet by John Wiley, the owner of a Ceylon tea plantation, and has amazing romantic adventures. Perhaps she would have been happier staying in the world of books, or perhaps things would have turned out differently if he had been another John Wiley.

Elephant Walk, 1954 – Director: William Dieterle

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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Penguin…and all the other things we once thought mattered

Kif, the narrator of Richard Flanagan’s First Person, is writing a novel, but it’s going nowhere when his old pal Ray gets him the job of ghostwriting Ziggy Heidl’s autobiography. That’s how he and Ray ‘drifted into that world of publishing and celebrity‘ and meet Gene Paley and Pia Carnevale at the venerable firm of Schlegel TransPacific (known as Transpac or STP). As so often in contemporary novels, the golden age of publishing (including the downtown prestige offices) are part of the backdrop.

It was 1992, that time so close and now so far away when publishing executives still had such rooms and liquors cabinets; before Amazon and e-books; before phrases like granular analytics, customer fulfilment, and supply chain management had connected like tightening coils in the hangman’s noose; before the relentless rise of property values and the collapse of publishing saw publishers’ offices morph into abattoir-like assembly lines, where all staff sat cheek by jowl at long benches reminiscent, say, of Red Army canteens in Kabul, circa 1979.

Ziggy’s story is complicated and violent, but the book eventually gets written and published. Kif still has no success writing novels, but he moves to writing for TV where he has a stunning success.

Pia, the books editor, goes on to ‘survive the clearfelling of publishing companies that proceeded apace over the next few decades, finding at each point in the ever-diminishing forest another, higher tree which to climb. She ended up working at Penguin Random House in New York, the last of the great publishers in the last of great European cities [sic] and all the other things we once thought mattered.

First Person is published under the Chatto & Windus imprint, a part of none other than the Penguin Random House group of companies, where there is, no doubt, an editor – or perhaps more than one – who identifies with Pia.

Richard Flanagan, First Person, 2017

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Publishing lunch in New York

Kay Norris, one of the main characters in Ira Levin’s Sliver, is an editor at Diadem, and she epitomises the supposed glamour of New York trade publishing in the 1980s. She lunches in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons and at Perigord East. When the book was written it must have seemed like it would never end, but it did.

The Four Seasons at 99 East 52nd Street closed in July 2016 and the famous interior fittings were sold at auction. The Perigord, just down the street at 405, closed its doors in March 2017.

New York publishing and the publishing lunch are not what they used to be.

Ira Levin, Sliver, 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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