‘If a book is worth anything, it’s worth not 2,000 copies at 63s. but 30,000 copies at 4s. 6d.’, writes a publisher in this account of his work in a leading paperback firm. Yet with the market already saturated with titles, G.G. believes that British publishing—often inefficient and archaic—is being saved only by the introduction of new marketing techniques and concepts.
To start at the beginning, or as near to the beginning as it is safe to go. Publishers are traditionally supposed to be failed writers. A number of good writers are part-time publishers. None of them, to my knowledge, is a first-rate publisher. More of them, naturally enough, are ‘literary advisers’, whatever that means. But of first-rate publishers there are perhaps a dozen in this country, depending at what point you draw the line, and including those who issue highly specialized books. I am an editor, and in the firm for which I work editors are considered minipublishers: we are expected to be responsible for everything that happens to the books we look after. I consider myself at the age of 26 an unoriginal and mildly lazy publisher, and a promising writer. The Literary World, that self-congratulating, self-perpetuating coterie of amateurs residing entirely in London, has by its lack of interest—with the exception, surprisingly, of a handful of authors, editors and critics I happen to respect—deemed me a mediocre writer. But as a publisher I am considered bright and lively, which shows how little talent there is around in the profession. Or trade. Or industry. Or occupation.
Witness the above four alternatives: publishing is not certain what kind of animal it is. Whether it is respectable or slightly adventurous and arty. Whether one wears a dark suit or corduroys to the office. Whether one drinks wine or beer. Whether one is on a par with advertising men or teachers or writers. And that is my dilemma. When is a publisher not a publisher? When he’s a writer, or thinks he’s a writer? Maybe. To declare my credentials: an editor with our best paperback
It is, inevitably, being in a position to say yes or no to certain literary offerings put before me. Having the right to do so, because for this I am paid. It might be anyone’s job—it happens for the moment to be mine. Ironically, it is the part that is carried out most easily. It is disconcerting for those not initiated into the supposed mysteries of publishing—which don’t exist—to be told that I tend to wade through piles of 12 manuscripts in half an hour and give them all the thumbs down. Together, these 12 novels and volumes of commonplace autobiography and awful poetry and histories of William the Conqueror (hundreds of them doing the rounds, 18 months ago) may have taken their authors 20 years to write. And in some cases I have relegated them to the rejection pile after casually reading one, two, three sentences. Who the hell do I think I am . . . ?
Very early on in my life as an editor I decided it was kinder to return manuscripts to their owners with rejection slips rather than with long, helpful, critical letters, endeavouring to explain the reasons for rejection. The sad, frustrated author would be wounded to his sensitive quick by my saying, say, that his sentences might benefit by not being invariably two-and-a-half foolscap pages in length. How was I to know that he prided himself especially on his punctuation? More often than not, such letters from me—or from any other editor, for that matter—elicited foul, savage or at least hopelessly time-consuming letters. An enormous and futile correspondence would ensue, the author only interested in proving you wrong. Invariably, you—or rather I, the editor—ended everything by saying, politely or not: why, if you feel like this, did you send your masterpiece to someone you didn’t know, probably didn’t even know of by repute? Why trust your luck, your life’s work, to some no doubt seedy little man determined to do you down, sitting behind a desk covered with splinters in a badly lighted room with a threadbare carpet?
The editor, to put the relationship of author and publisher at its most basic, is trying to earn his salary, hoping to stay in a job which 200 other people would love to have, many of them not actually caring whether or not they are paid, all of them feeling they could do it better than the current incumbent. If an editor, therefore, sees a flicker of talent, of promise in a manuscript, he will follow it up, meet the author if this is at all practicable, establish a relationship with him as a person and as a writer. Only thus, to my mind, can an editor make himself really useful to an author. Only when an author feels he knows his editor well, is he likely to consider constructive criticism from him.