I remember the day when modern publishing in the UK ‘changed’. I was twenty-five and proud to be working as an editorial assistant at an independent publishing house that had helped bring about a revolution in the way the public viewed work by women writers.
Enter, one ordinary London afternoon circa 1991: a man in a suit. The kind of man that we dd not often see inside our offices. The ‘buzz’ was this was ‘the money-man’. We in the then large editorial department gathered round to listen to what he had to say. Editors at our company had, the gentleman informed us, hitherto been publishing by following ‘our tummy waters.’
‘Tummy waters’ , the money-man said, as if to a group of primary school chidren, which included the companies editorial directors, women who had been buying books with flare and commitment for many years, ‘ had to stop.’ He went on to explain the brilliance of his principle thus: ‘If for example, you get in two books and one shows promise but needs editing, and one is in a perfectly finished condition, you would take the one in the finished condition, wouldn’t you? Time after all is money. Editing is after all time. You follow?’ He scanned the room to see if through the fog of our basic, feminine, aquatic insincts we could sufficienly access his logic – as if publishing were some kind of Sophie’s Choice.
My naive reaction then was however, on behalf of writers as well as the future of our literary culture ‘HELP!’ This was because, as any Pretext reader will know, literary history is littered with examples of writers who a) have thrived with editorial support in the first instance if not throughout their careers (T.S. Eliot, Esther Freud, Dick Francis … ) and b) writers who have taken several novels to ‘mature’ and become successes at both critical and sales levels (Michelle Roberts, A.S. Byatt, Barbara Trapido …) What on earth would happen to them? What would happen to some of the best writers in the language, if these limiting principles regarding what it means to be creative were allowed to operate? How limited also would the job of editor become if there were no value attached to spotting potential and helping a writer reach it? And this was before the next stage in the financial argument had become truly pervasive: that every book be a best-seller, or die.
It is by now well-documented, that as tutor at Oxford Brookes Publishing course Claire Squires puts it in a forthcoming article ‘Novelistic Production and the Publishing Industry in Britain and Ireland’ (A Companion to the British Novel, Brian Schaffer ed., Oxford, Blackwell 2002), ‘the deregulation of the financial markets in the US and UK in the 1970s and 1980s was crucial to the intensification of publishing conglomeration. ‘ Squires also confirms what those who care about books know, that the demise of the Net Book Agreement in 1995 ‘is another indicator of the intensely competitive nature of the more recent literary marketplace.’ In addition, the tendency of bookshops to stop stocking back and mid-list titles in favour of front-list title, and that of libraries to stop stocking books that were not among the most-borrowed further pressured all publishers. Together, these changes meant that many smaller, independent presses such as the one I worked for could not survive. In short, over a period of a few years between the late 1980 and 1993, the company I worked for laid of 23 of 27 staff and was then sold to a conglomerate, with the head of marketing firmly in position as publisher. As Claire Squires corroborates, ‘the history of Virago ‘demonstrates the fate of radical publishing practices under the pressures of conglomeration’ and she goes on to comment: ‘Whether it is possible to retain a publishing programme with a political mission under such swings of ownership is questionsable.’
Since that time, as we know, the trend that this example illustrates has only intensified. Last remaining independent houses such as Fourth Estate, have been bought up and existing conglomerates such as Random House have themselves been bought and sometimes bought again. Within those houses, imprints have been closed, with literary imprints, or more modestly selling imprints, being under particular scrutiny. The most recentl example of this, to the upset of many editors which the industry, was Flamingo. Two large indepedents survive, Bloomsbury (thriving in part due to the outlandish but exciting success of Harry Potter) and Faber (who traditionally earn a good deal from the T.S. Eliot Estate.). Canongate, who have a sound, inventive programme and have recently enjoyed particular recognition by virtue of Jan Martel’s Booker prize winning Life of Pi , and other small, honourable independents such as Arcadia (run by the tireless Gary Pulsifer, Arts Council-backed, publishers of Kathy Acker and Shere Hite), Saqi (run by the passionate Andre Gaspard, successful publisher of mainstream ‘casualty’, winner of the Orange prize, Maggie Gee) and Maia, recently founded by Jane Harvill and Maggie Hammond (champions of writers of the calibre of Sara Maitland, Lewis DeSoto and Michael Arditti …) operate like brave but beautiful fishes in an enormous and hazardous sea.
Editors and publishers such as Andre Schiffrin in his book The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (Verso, 2000) have in recent years spoken out increasingly about how damaging they feel that these globally corporate motives are to our culture and our reading. In a sense it has become almost a truism to observe that there are hazards attached to money-making as main incentive behaviour in creative companies.
The question is in 2004, perhaps not so much is the modern publishing industry ‘bad’ for writers and therefore for the literary culture, as to what specffic ways, if any, is it a) helpful and b) potentially detrimental/hazardous. I can’t within the restrictions of this time and space do this enormous subject justice as it would in part require an in-depth examination of the nature of creativity. However, at the end I will attempt to crudely enumerate at its end ‘issues’ that seem to me to be pressing and which are emerging more and more from the mouths of both ‘successfully’ published writers in this environment.
Before any consideration any of us undertake of the question of how the modern publishing industry affects creativity and writers it seems vital to remind ourselves of the fact that artists in many disciplines throughout the ages have of course been dependent on some source of finance and a access in some cases to modes of production. Patronage either through individuals (Virgil, Dante, etc.), state (Shostokovitch, The Royal Opera House) or commercial backing (everybody published by a commercial press) are behind every widely known practitioner.
The novel form is, I think, particularly dependent in that it was not ‘invented’ before the introduction of the printing press. Samuel Richardson, commonly considered the first ‘modern’ novelist, was both printer, publisher and novelist. Winnicot famously said to illustrate the nature of dependence of a baby on its mother, ‘there is no such thing as a baby.’ Some would say, ‘there is no such thing as a novel’ without a means of production. I have discussed at length in an M.A. paper entitled Is There Anybody Reading Me? A psychoanalytic exploration of the relationship between those people who write and readers working in publishing and related industries (Tavistock/U.E.L) the nature of the sensitive relationship between writer and reader. The noevlist is I think particularly vulnerable.
(Or: A personal reaction to the ‘modern’ publishing industry)
Although we can’t undertake an in depth anaylysis of what makes up creativity. I would like to interject into this article a personal and I hope pertinent account of my own reaction to the fate and status of ‘raw’ creativity in this country. To rewind slighty. When I lost the job at Virago in 1993, I looked around me at the alarmingly competitive world that had become book publishing and considered that if I wanted to carry on working with writers in an immediately creative way, I would have not to enter a world that traded in books that were ‘already finished and not in need of editing.’ At the same time I did not want to ‘give up’ on the realities of the industry either. There were plenty of creative writing programmes already in existence that encouraged creative ‘play’ for ‘play’s sake’. I am a great fan of creative play, which seems to me to be of value in itself – but importantly also to be a prerequisite in early stages towards the making of ‘good art’. However, the concern I had as a result of observing how little people writing knew about publishing industries, was what happened to people writing when the play ended? Their encounter with the realities of publishing were often profoundly surprsing and upsetting – both to writer and editor. Things, as we have seen, were only going to get worse.
Preoccupations such as these led me and the literature-passionate Hannah Griffiths who later worked at Curtis Brown as an agent and is now an editor at Faber & Faber, to try to establish a professional reading service which would give anybody writing in English access to proffessional, editorial help and sound, honest, industry advice. If it worked, it worked. If not, we had not a bean between us at that time and so nothing was lost. That was in 1996. Despite the warning of an ex boss of mine, an editor, that ‘people don’t want to know what readers really think of their work, let alone pay for it!’ the company, The Literary Consultancy, is now thriving and helped by an Arts Council grant. In many ways not anticipated, TLC (as it is now generally known) has been an unexpectedly interesting adventure and I think that is in part due to the kind of creative energy it has created since established and attracted. It coincided with a great need for people both wanting opinion and industry information. Clients seem relieved there is somebody to help think with them at the end of the phone rather than simply to say ‘we are too busy’ or make them feel like a fool for callling. The stigma of paying for an editorial opinion was less and less acute in a world in which much editorial talent was being ejected from the industry itself and editors relied on freelance income. After all, editors are highly skilled individuals – not saints.
The industry, as I saw it, would plough on its money-making way but people would not stop writing. The number of people writing in the UK has surely never been so high. This is for a number of reasons established I think since Romanticism encouraged readers to explore their internal worlds (and Wordsworth in particular addressed the subject of ‘the incidents of common life’) and since industrialisation created splits between public and private selves which left the private selves yearning for expression. This has led to a situation in which, in the words of sociologist Michael Urben (1999):
With its discussion of private experience autobiography has in the 20th century become increasingly valued not so much as an emprical record of historical events … but as providing an epitome of personal sensibility among the intricate vicissitudes of social change
If you add to this the increase in ‘testimonials’ following the trauma of two world wars as well as the encrouagement to self expression as a result of the recent ‘therapy’ culture, you have a situation in which people feel they have a natural ‘right’ to tell their tale.
On top of this all you need was to make easier the mode of production and there you have it: a large number of people trying their hand at teeling their story/write their novel. It seems to me professional writers and critics fall into two camps: those who think ‘amateurs’ should be shot at dawn – and those who think it’s fine to ‘have a go’. As far as I am concerned I think these ‘camps’ can think what they like and the hard-liners can say until they are blue in the face that they think people should ‘stop writing’ – but simple fact is that they won’t. It always feels to me that ‘stop-the-flow-of bad-writers’ scaremonger-evangelists are like Canute, trying to turn back the tide. I am not saying I don’t share a concern about where creative writing teaching ends up (how many writer after all does a culture need, good or bad?) but I do feel it is a genearlly healthy society in which human beings, both talented and untalented crave expression and arguably, have a ‘right’ to express themselves without rebuke from an elite. In my view, the problem lies in the expectation, concsious or otherwise that people writing harbour. My small answer was to try to provide a ‘reality-testing’ bridge in the form of TLC.
A note on ‘good and bad’ writers whilst we are on the theme. My experience of researching the M.A. showed that the dividing line is not always as comfortable as some would like it. As a result of interviewing a combination of both published and unpublished writers for the M.A. paper I concluded that there are more similarites than differences in the ‘creative processes’ between people who write ‘well’ and those who don’t write ‘well enough.’ ‘Good’ writing after all, is often born from experiment and the production of a lot of ‘bad’ writing. Will Self wrote that he had to write one million words before he discovered what it was he even wanted to say.
Anyway, as regards the industry, which I suppose I think of as an increasingly separate entity from all potential sources of writing creativity: out of all these ‘playing’ with creativity, only circa 1 % will make it through in to a professionally published form. It seems to me that people writing a) either need to examine their motives harder if they are under the ‘delusion’ they will necessarily et published and importantly b) laern to value themselves in way other than by validation from the industry. Unfortunately for some very good writers once publishable but no longer considered viable, other forms of self respect have become vital. There have always been writers who feel the industry has treated them bitterly. They will always be editors who do their best and often to their own disappointment ‘fail’ on a writers behalf. With the icnreasing divide between money-making and writing as an art of exploration – I would urge writers to be easier on themselves.
We have skated through how the industry has indeed, ‘changed’ in the last two decades and we have considered the now evident increase on profit-making and of the difficulties small publishers face when trying to get their wokr into the marketplace. To race through a conclusion, intended simply as a starting point for a discussion which I feel will run for years and which is, in earnest, only warming up, let us first outline:
a) THE BENEFITS OF INCREASED COMMERCIALISATION OF PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FOR CREATIVITY, WRITERS AND BOOK ‘PRODUCT’
1. There are rewards of higher advances for some people which can, if it doesn’t lead to an excessive sense of being pressured, can lead arguably to a higher sense of self worth
2. An increased sense of competition for high advances which could in some cases promote a hunger for rapid creative production that would otherwise lie dormant for longer
3. An increase of visible publicity/marketing for those titles which do get taken on arguable has helped to increase an environment in which people buy and read books. After all, reading is cmpeting with an increasing number of alternative mediums for the spread of information and entertainment
b) POTENTIALLY ‘NEGATIVE’, DESTRUCUTIVE OR LIMITING EFFECTS OF INCREASED COMMERICALISATION OF THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FOR CREATIVITY, WRITERS AND BOOK ‘PRODUCT’
1. Higher advances lead to higher pressure, to a sense of responsibility towards the publisher and potentially a tougher sense of failure if sales are not earned back
2. Writers are told what kind of novels they can write along the lines of what sales/editorial teams are ‘sure’ will stand a better chance of selling. How does this effect an ‘organic’ writerly production in the long run? I think this is a potentially serious area.
3. Demands of publicity rounds on writers who often would rather not. A preference on the part of publishers for those who do enjoy publicity rounds.
4. A general likely reduction in level of good writing as the writing quality is put second to the marketability of author/product
5. Writers complain of a lack of ‘editorial attention and skills’ within publishing industry. This is more important for writers than some people currently working within some publishers seem to realise. The question of how you treat your ‘worker’ (writer) also comes up for question when considering this point
6. Writers complain of a rapid turn over of editors (see point 6.)
7. Writers complain of not being known by young publicity and editorial teams
8. Writers complain of having to write work as instructed by sales/editorial teams or run the risk of being ‘sacked’
To me it is obvious that the kind of people who usually make the best writers in the long run are going to suffer both personally, and fear threat to their output, if exposed to too much crude marketing expectation. Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘publishers told me to write what they liked. I said no, I’ll publish myself and write what I like.’ The history of those great writers who have self-consciously opted out of what they perceive to be ‘vulgar’ or ‘pressurising’ concerns would need to be part of any in-depth study of this theme. Great, or less great, however, not every writer wants to or can produce a novel on demand. Not every good writer wants to rewrite a novel synopsis on the strength of what sales team hope will sell. Good writers still need to play. They still need space, time and respect to practice their craft, make errors if necessary, and come up, if they want, with something new. Creativity was ever thus. If publishers don’t understand this, surely it will be at their, or the culture’s, long term peril? Publishers currently run the risk of losing important writers in the long term on the basis of short term decision making. Money people can say ‘it doesn’t matter as long as we earn money’ but in the long run this is to fail to have a healthy understanding of what books, or the ‘product’ is.
REPEAT: As long as questions are asked answers will be found. Exicting opportunities for writers in all forms. It could be a shift of where we learn to look for exciting work and learning to value other methods of distribution again other than the commerical press.