An author’s agent, Michael Sissons, calls for fewer books

A publisher writes to the New Statesman: ‘The Halcyon days are over, and the boom in books, which already looked a little shaky last Christmas, was dealt a major blow by the events of the winter, and does not show any signs of recovering this summer. Most booksellers complain that their stocks are dangerously high, and some even go so far as to say that they have never been offered so many new books as during the last few months. They are cutting down orders right and left.’ A publisher writes to the Spectator: ‘I found myself wondering aloud where “literature” had got to. Almost every book seemed to deal with some more or less specialised subject.’ Another publisher writes: ‘These are hard times for authors … new authors, unless they are promising enough to elbow their established competitors aside, are denied publication.’

A chorus of woe prompted by the recession of 1980? No, all remarks made in 1948, and quoted by Robert Hewison in his forthcoming cultural history of the period, In Anger.

Publishers are like farmers. When times are good – as they were spectacularly during the years after 1974 when the pound was weakest abroad – it’s difficult to get them to admit it. In bad times, the chorus of woe becomes deafening. If everyone knows that we’re having a hard time, the argument goes, then authors and agents will restrain their demands, booksellers won’t press us for higher discounts, printers will understand that we pay our bills a little slower. It seems no time at all since publishing worked its way through the cycle of recession in 1974/5, and, as the present recession bites, the same arguments are heard, though of course sharpened by a strong pound abroad and high interest rates at home.

There’s a unique illogic about the way publishers have reacted to this recession. They decide that they are only interested in publishing ‘best-sellers’, and that the ‘marginal’ book is no longer for them. But where are these best-sellers to come from? At any time, there’s a finite number of hardcover titles which have true best-selling potential, and no one can wave a magic wand over books which haven’t that potential simply by paying larger advances for them. So for the past six months, in both London and New York, the market for writers has been artificially constrained, just as it was in 1974. In March of that year, in the wake of the three-day week, a leading publisher told me that his board had decided not to buy any more books for 12 months. What would they publish, I asked? Soapflakes? Baked beans? A shrug of the shoulders and roll of the eyes implied that it wasn’t his decision. Eighteen months later that group was running round London picking up other people’s leavings in order to have a list to publish, while in the meantime new publishers, notably Harvester Press, had started in the trough of the recession to take up good books that established houses were letting alone. The present situation is that a very small number of books command huge prices and have huge hopes reposed in them, to the detriment of a wide range of publishable and profitable books with more modest potential.

What happens to the reader and buyer of books when recession reduces disposable income? First of all, his local library’s budget is cut and the availability through the library system of books that he wants to read contracts. On the face of it, this could whet his appetite to spend his own money on books. Second, pressure on his purse is likely to rule out major domestic purchases and to leave books and particularly paperbacks looking like good value. Third, when gloom at home and abroad makes opening a newspaper a painful business, there’s a natural inclination to seek solace in escapist fiction or instructional non-fiction.

All of this, as I was told by my elders when I started to work as an agent, is a received wisdom bequeathed from the Thirties, when publishing did comparatively well. Indeed, many of the most successful post-war imprints were founded or came to prominence during the slump. Whatever difficulties booksellers may now be having in holding a high level of stock, and whatever constraints publishers, particularly independent publishers, are under in finding the cash to invest in new editions and fund work in progress – i.e. commission authors to write books – there is little evidence that the public appetite for books and for buying them has diminished.

Presumably this is what sustains the unreasoning optimism of British publishers, who have continued during the Seventies to pump more and more new titles each year into a static retail trade. Theoretically, there are around eighteen hundred publishers in Britain, though the vast majority are of little consequence. There are perhaps 350 in the main stream, producing in 1979 the staggering total of over forty thousand new titles. Consider the problems of the small bookseller trying to cope with 350 different accounts, or indeed to give fair treatment to 350 different lists. Is it any wonder that, confronted with the eternal complaint that he hasn’t got this or that book in stock, his first instinct is to blame the publisher for not selling it to him? Consider what happens in individual bookshops to those many titles of which the bookseller can only afford to take one copy as a sampler. If that copy is sold on its first day on the shelf, does that constitute a demand for the book, and if so does it get re-ordered? Probably not. Consider the enormously wasteful duplication of new titles in such areas as cookery, gardening, health, beauty, yoga, self-help. There is a huge choice for the consumer, but at what a price to the trade.

During the 1974 recession it was expected that much waste and over-production in publishing would be flushed out by financial exigencies, and that a trimmer and more soundly based industry would emerge, even if some imprints went to the wall and some jobs were lost. But although, in those companies badly stretched in 1974, some dusty corners were swept out, the process was almost immediately overtaken by a strong up-turn in export trading conditions. So we still have a book trade in which it is quite evident that retail outlets cannot cope with the output of books, and can offer no hope of doing so. The growth and importance of book clubs during this period hasn’t stemmed the spate of new titles – in fact, it has probably encouraged it. I believe that only the grocery and publishing trades behave like this, but each new food product that is planned is rigorously tested on a sample basis, and never fully marketed if it falls short of expectations. No book could ever be test-marketed in this way.

I believe that the structure of publishing will not survive intact the uniquely difficult combination of adverse conditions which now affect its viability, but even if I’m wrong, it is crucial for its long-term health that it should contract. The over-production of new books has become a nonsense, because, quite apart from the situation in the bookshops, publishing just does not have the capacity to look at each book as the unique and original artefact which it is and to nurture and promote it accordingly. I doubt if this will come about by self-denying ordinance. But whatever the short-term difficulties for those of us, authors and agents, who rely on publishers buying the books we have to sell, I believe that by the end of the Eighties there will be fewer separate publishers in London. Those who flourish could then concentrate on bringing out fewer titles, choosing each book with greater care, avoiding duplication throughout the trade, reviving the editing skills for which London used to be noted, and paying more attention to the promotion and marketing of each title. One desirable consequence would be the amalgamation under larger umbrellas of those smaller imprints which may be strong on editorial inventiveness and creativity but are weak on the more mundane skills, and chronically under-capitalised. It is perhaps dangerous to pay tribute to the conglomerates in the book trade, but it is undeniable, and never more apparent than now, that British publishing, intrinsically cash-hungry, remains woefully short of working capital. Meanwhile editorial capacity often seems most evident in the new firms of packagers which have established themselves on the fringe of general publishing and which, ironically, are likely to be the first to go under. They have outdone the traditional houses, not only in respect of design and production skills, but also – I think to everyone’s surprise – in respect of the flair which finds and initiates books and sees them through at every level.

For a decade now, the foremost general publishers in New York have been able to promote their editorial skills at the expense of the reputation of British houses. Although this is strenuously denied here, there is no doubt that creative editing is infinitely less prized in London than it used to be. Too few London publishers are willing or able to invest in creating jobs for young editors, training them properly, and giving them the authority and budget to take their own risks. These days, there are very few editors under thirty who have that authority. More and more British authors expect to find their books edited in New York rather than in London. It is depressing to see a typescript in London being passed as ready for press when the same book is undergoing a major editorial overhaul in New York. At the same time, the London publisher is all too often playing safe by printing low and pricing high. How can a London publisher justify issuing an excellent and well-reviewed biography at £18.50 when the New York edtion is being published simultaneously at $18.50, as happened this spring with an author of mine? This is privishing – cynically playing the institutional market for a safe minimum sale, and literally removing from the author the possibility of any appreciable general sale whatsoever. This particular book enjoyed a laudatory review across several columns of the Times, but at that price I sadly conclude that the review could not have inspired more than a dozen readers to buy it.

There is an increasing tendency, moreover, for literary publishers, in taking decisions, to rely, not on their own taste, instinct and judgment, but on the support of paperback houses and book clubs. Good publishing demands firm judgment. When judgments are dominated by excessive pessimism, they tend to be bad judgments. In this connection, we must hope for something from the creation by the Publishers’ Association of the Book Marketing Council – the first concerted move to understand the realities of selling and promoting books to a wider public.

Lastly, the current pessimism has produced a most unhealthy gulf between the publisher’s knowledge of what will happen to a small printing of an unpromoted book and the author’s reasonable expectations in the matter. All too often, every department of the house knows that the sales of a book will be low, and that its only publishing point is its contribution to turnover, because a decision has been made not to promote it (even if the reviews are good). This is virtually never conveyed to the author, and it happens continually. For most authors most of the time, publication is a non-event.