New Ground for the Book Trade

John Sutherland

The British book trade is experiencing change more drastic than anything it has undergone since the 1890s. What is happening – something that can loosely be called deregulation – will undo the controls on free trade that were installed in the 1890s by the then newly-formed publishers’ and booksellers’ associations. This dismantling appears as three trends, each apparently separate but in fact converging as a single tendency. Most spectacular is the absorption of venerable middle and small-sized publishing houses into conglomerates, often with non-publishing or foreign management at the highest level. Penguin, Hamish Hamilton, Michael Joseph, Frederick Warne and Longman – all once imprints with independent identities – now congregate within the Pearson group (best known for its ownership of the Financial Times). Random House UK (whose American parent was long since swallowed up by RCA) own Hutchinson, Cape, Chatto and Windus, Bodley Head. Below this league, which numbers about ten major players, there have been some marriages of convenience. Weidenfeld holdings, for instance, include the brash Weidenfeld and Nicolson and the staid J.M. Dent and Everyman imprints. There have also been some bloody dismemberings. Methuen (which celebrates its centenary in 1989) was sold in 1987 to International Thomson, who broke it up, selling the general and children’s list to Paul Hamlyn’s Octopus, itself subsequently acquired by Reed International. Methuen’s academic books remained with Thomson, who now bring them out under the Routledge imprint, another victim of conglomeration.

In itself, merger is not alien to the British book trade. The conger and opportunistic partnership were common in the 18th century as capital-raising devices. Despite their reputed ‘gentlemanliness’, British publishers have always been willing to gobble up their weaker brethren. ‘Longman’ is modern shorthand for Longman, Brown, Rees, Orme and Green; Routledge for Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner. Chatto and Windus began in the 1870s as a partnership between Andrew Chatto who had drive, and W.E. Windus, a minor poet who had some capital. But the firm only took off with the acquisition a few years later of John Hotten’s, Henry Bohn’s and John Maxwell’s publishing properties. Macmillan absorbed the house of Bentley in 1898; Murray absorbed Smith, Elder in 1917; between the wars, according to Ian Norrie, Hutchinson ‘absorbed so many imprints that no complete record of them exists’. The archaeology of British publishing shows an industry constantly stripping and reassembling its productive components into new formations.

Coalition, then, is neither new nor frightening in itself. What alarms is the pace and indiscriminate nature of 1980s conglomeration. Take the case of Secker and Warburg, one of Britain’s best-known general trade publishers. The firm was begun in 1910 by Martin Secker, and rescued from bankruptcy in 1936 when Frederic Warburg joined as a partner. Warbarg went on to build an outstanding list and was independent to the point of being a trade maverick. (It was Secker and Warburg who took on Animal Farm after Faber, Cape and Gollancz all decided it was too controversial for them to handle.) In 1951, however, Warburg ran into financial problems and his firm became the target of a predatory American takeover. To protect Secker and Warburg’s character he entered on a sheltering relationship with the larger and (as he thought) rocklike Heinemann. Heinemann, it was arranged, would take over all the marketing, production and distributing functions – ‘everything that makes a publishing house a business’, as Warburg put it: ‘what was left for Secker and Warburg to do? Everything that was individualistic and personal.’

At the time and for some years afterwards, it seemed an admirably ecological partnership. Under the Heinemann umbrella Secker and Warburg thrived. In 1960, however, a now financially shaky Heinemann and its satellites were acquired by Thomas Tilling, an industrial group with a main interest in construction. They were not, however, interventionist owners and the publishing activities went on much as before, although by the early 1970s Warburg had retired and Secker’s was managed (very successfully) by Tom Rosenthal. In 1985, Tilling was taken over by BTR (Birmingham Tire and Rubber), who were primarily interested in acquiring the other group’s non-publishing subsidiaries (such as Dunlopillo and Pretty Polly tights). BTR was interventionist and encouraged rationalisation between Heinemann and Secker and Warburg. In the process, Rosenthal left to join André Deutsch (one of the last remaining independents). In 1985, BTR divested Heinemann and Secker to Paul Hamlyn’s Octopus group (a cut-price omnibus reprint outfit, begun in the 1970s), which in turn was absorbed into Reed International. By this point Frederic Warburg’s ecological pieties about Secker retaining its ‘individualistic and personal’ freedoms rang very hollow. Secker and Warburg are nowadays just a small piece on a small square on a large board called multinational industry. Will it, five years from now, have any distinct identity – identity, that is, rooted in its eighty-year history? Or will Secker, Heinemann and Methuen be homogenised, their products as essentially alike as Esso and BP petrol? There were once distinct differences between a Cape, a Bodley Head and a Chatto book. Will the differences survive now that they are all Random House books?

Perhaps not. But does it matter? There is no law to stop new publishing houses being started up. If someone like Max Reinhardt wants to go on producing what he takes to be authentic Bodley Head books, he is free to set up a firm called Max Reinhardt to do so. There is, however, a catch. Stripped down to essentials, publishers have one function – the provision of risk capital for the books of their choice. The potency of the new conglomerated publishers is the vast reserves of money (in the form of guaranteed overdraft) available to them for authors’ advances. List-building nowadays requires very deep pockets. The million dollars (they called it £650,000) which Chatto advanced Michael Holroyd for his unwritten and distant biography of Shaw was no aberration. These are the sums and time-scales in terms of which publishers and ambitious authors must now think. Newly set-up publishers with the bank manager breathing down their necks, and the surviving independents with modest annual turnovers, may well discover new talent as they always have in the past. But they will have great difficulty in holding on to that talent. Author loyalty can be strong, but is rarely strong enough to withstand six-figure inducements. Small independent publishers will become like Fourth Division football clubs, forever losing their stars at the first gleaming. Managerial talent will go the same way. There is, for instance, something logical in a gifted publisher like Carmen Callil making her name in a small, independent publishing-house like Virago and then going on to tycoon status at Chatto. Author-poaching and head-hunting can be expected to create a constant updraft to the conglomerates.

A parallel trend to conglomeration is evident at the retail end of the trade, where bookselling in Britain is in the process of ‘chaining’ itself. Assimilating, that is, to the American model where B. Dalton, Crown Books and Waldenbooks dominate the country’s shopping malls with uniform outlets, as like each other as McDonald’s and Burger King. The merging, or submerging, of Waterstone’s 30 stores into W.H. Smith, and Pentos’s revamping of their Dillons outlets, are a preparatory move towards the chain system. British high-street bookshops now look very like their glossy American counterparts. American chains merchandise books like compact discs or video cassettes, with a strong emphasis on bestselling (‘top 50’, ‘new release’) items, and a dozen or so easily racked categories such as ‘how-to’ books, fiction, health books, children’s books, biography. Massive front-of-store display (for which the publisher must sometimes pay rent) is allocated to hand-picked books of the day. The chain outlets hold relatively few titles and aim to shift their stock off the shelf before it gathers any dust. Books that do not move are promptly returned or remaindered as ‘bargain books’ or ‘books for a buck’. It is ominous that its new owners report that Waterstone is operating inefficiently due to ‘overstocking’ (Guardian, 17 August 1989).

The clinching move in the chaining of the British bookselling system will be the abolition, or mass flouting, of the Net Book Agreement of 1900 which standardises retail price and forbids premature remaindering. Terry Maher, the chairman of Pentos, has been threatening to breach the NBA for almost a year now. Despite the Office of Fair Trading’s recent upholding of the regulation, the odds are that Maher will eventually succeed in his campaign. The NBA was, one feels, doomed as early as fifteen years ago when the Sunday Times set up the first reliable weekly best-seller list in Britain (the United States, which has no NBA, has had a countrywide best-seller list since 1895). Highlighting books which are selling by the ton creates an irresistible pressure to lower price. People do not think it fair that they should pay full whack for the 100,000th copy of the hardback Ambition. American chains primarily attract customers into their stores by loss-leading books on the latest New York Times best-seller list by as much as 30 per cent.

The third trend currently transforming the British book world also involves a synergism between the newspaper and book-buying publics. In the last couple of years there has been a dramatic expansion in the space given books in quality newspapers. The launch of the Sunday Times book review (which carries the country’s principal best-seller list); the doubling of the Times’s book pages with two-day coverage; the arrival of the Independent with its daily book review plus a weekly books page; the imminent arrival of the Sunday Correspondent; the palpably greater book-consciousness of the Guardian, Observer and Telegraph add up to a reviewing boom. This boom does not indicate a spontaneous surge of interest by the reading population or cultural philanthropy on the part of newspaper proprietors. It is a bid for advertising revenue. Compared to America, the British book trade has in the past spent remarkably little on advertisement directed specifically at the consumer, preferring instead to concentrate on trade advertisement in organs like the Bookseller which the public rarely sees and on sales representation. That is now changing. In future, we shall see a heavier barrage of newspaper advertising, point-of-sale publicity and radio and television plugs. The Sunday Times pushes Sky TV because both are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Both Sky TV and the Sunday Times can be expected in the course of time to push Collins books, which News Corporation also owns. These are the natural consequences of conglomeration and can only be restrained by the kind of anti-monopoly laws which, in its present deregulating mood, Britain does not like.

The link between the conglomerates and the chains will be the best-seller list, whose function is not to record sales but to stimulate them. Best-sellerism and publicity will intensify all three trends I’ve mentioned here. Best-sellers need hyping, and at a thousand or more pounds for a spot advertisement only firms with large budgets will be in the game. That means conglomerates. Economic returns for books on which large advance payments and expensive publicity are bestowed will require fast and large sales. This in turn will favour the high-pressure, title-intensive techniques of the chain stores.

Barring some unseen catastrophe such as world war or a socialist government, the future lines of the British book trade are set. It’s not an entirely reassuring prospect, at least not for the traditionally bookish classes. Abolition of the NBA will not, on previous evidence, improve the provision of a broad range of books across the country. When price control was abolished in the 1850s, the network of provincial booksellers withered, which is the main reason why the NBA was originally invented. The same withering was experienced in France recently when retail price maintainance was abolished: so much so that a socialist ministry restored the regulation. When Terry Maher wins his battle, the outlook for the small, owner-managed, low-turnover, broad-stock-holding bookshop in a side street will be bleak. Not that the chains will necessarily enjoy a monopoly of the retail trade. Sections of the reading public may – as in the past – avoid bookshops altogether. In Britain in the 19th century and in America throughout the 20th two bypass systems evolved as a response to deregulation: the circulating library and the book club. Clubs catering for specialist readers and the commercial lending library may well make a comeback in Britain. But it is unlikely that the poll tax-supported public library system will reclaim the dominating cultural position it enjoyed between 1956 and the mid-1970s. And if it did, ‘books on the rates’ would probably come in for furious attack (and possibly an embargo) from publishers, just as they did from aggrieved authors during the PLR campaign.

There will in all probability be fewer books. America, which has no less literate a population than Britain, turns out annually only a third the number of titles per capita. In some important respects fewer can mean better, or at least less tacky. The point was made by the agent Giles Gordon in a letter to the Times on 29 July. Gordon argued that the NBA-protected British book trade was forced to produce ‘far too many titles to enable it to achieve a tolerable turnover’. Because they are fewer in number and each title is a proportionately more profitable venture, American books are edited, manufactured and publicised to a higher standard. ‘When,’ asks Gordon, ‘did you last read a [British] novel without misprints, printed on non-see-through paper, stoutly bound? When did you last read a [British] paperback without damaging your eyesight?’ Fewer titles should mean books that are easier on the long-suffering British eye. It will mean fewer authors, but those authors can expect to be better-paid. That peculiarly British combination of ‘successful’ authorship and genteel poverty should be eliminated. And payment by advance, rather than retroactively by royalty, should reduce amateurism, encourage professionalism and conceivably make for better writing. Higher margins of profit in the publishing and book selling industries will conceivably lead to better rates of pay for a workforce whose pittances have traditionally been justified by the fact that the business is running on a shoe-string. Less shoddiness and less exploitation will be some compensation for less variety in our future reading matter.