Publishing, the middle way

For those quality books that the conglomerates feel unable to take on, agent and occasional publisher Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson has an alternative publishing proposal</p><p>
According to Jason Epstein, "Book publishing may become once more a cottage industry of diverse, creative, autonomous units." Were his words, in Book Business, penned in pious hope? Are they a nostalgia kick, merely whistling in the dark? Or do they contain a real germ of truth? </p><p>
I think they do. Bashing corporations is good fun, but it is beginning to look as outmoded as ducking witches. Few observer, however, would deny that personal relations between writer and editor--and indeed between writer and publishing house--are more difficult to establish, and certainly more difficult to maintain, than they used to be.</p><p>
Editors move far more frequently but, more importantly, the balance of power within the publishing house shifts. Suddenly the writer wakes up to the sickening fact that he or she has no control over the book. Decisions are made in marketing, design and publicity meetings that will fundamentally affect the way in which the book will be published. Publication dates move, page proofs will not after all be available, the number of illustrations is cut, plans for a paperback are dropped--all without the author being told or consulted. </p><p>
Vanity--or common sense?</p><p>
There is another basic problem. About 18 months ago, a client of mine, Andrew Sinclair, delivered an interesting and, in my view, highly saleable book that covered the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the history of Scotland, the discovery of America, and, significantly, the discovery of a scroll map in Orkney which shed new light on all the above. A rich, and rather enticing mixture, I thought. A succession of editors agreed, but their marketing and sales colleagues disagreed.</p><p>
This was the moment of discovery for me. I could provide a certain number of essential services: editorial, selling, distribution, media contacts. The author would put up the money and also help to design and produce the book. </p><p>
Of course, the dreaded term "vanity publishing" rears up. Is this approach any different? I think it is. There are two crucial differences. The author was closely involved in the complete publishing process, consulted at every point; and the publisher, in other words Sinclair-Stevenson, takes no cut until the author's initial outlay is covered. With my agent's hat on, I could still earn my normal 10% fee for the sale of serial or foreign rights.</p><p>
The experiment worked. The serial rights are sold; foreign rights look promising. Above all, the book has sold and reprinted, has gone to a book club, and will go into paperback in due course. </p><p>
It would be idiotic to claim that everything is plain sailing. An author who has invested money is a nervous beast, understandably. If the reviews do not come, unease can turn into sheer terror, with the bank manager breathing ever more heavily. </p><p>
I have to admit that my life has changed too. When I ran Hamish Hamilton, I had people to do things. Now, the buck stops very firmly here. Review copies have to be packed up, labelled and carted off to the post office. That is up to me. So are the telephone calls and letters urging literary editors of the brilliance of the books. So is the deciphering and analysis of distributors' reports, often unintelligible even to highly qualified and highly paid accountants. </p><p>
In short, there is a great deal to do--leaving aside the all-too-frequent approaches from writers who imagine that I am a kind of vast, free service ready to take on the most improbable books. </p><p>
Andrew Sinclair's The Secret Scroll was an undoubted success, and it looks as if Patrick Victory's book about the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, Justice and Truth--a truly important book which no publisher would touch--will prosper as well. </p><p>
But will Richard Appignanesi's Yukio Mishima's Report to the Emperor fare equally well? This is a magnificent novel, but undeniably challenging, long and complex. How does one persuade others to read it, let alone agree with me? Will the author despair? Will the vital element of trust--on which the entire process depends--wither and die? His nerves are racked, but so are mine.</p><p>
It would be crazy to take on more than a handful of books. I am fortunate in being able to consult my old production director Michael Brown, now retired but keeping close contacts with designers, jacket artists, printers and binders. Fortunate, too, in having a first-class sales team at Compass--run by Alan Jessop, who knows more than most about selling after a career that embraced HarperCollins and Reed--and an efficient and courteous Glasgow-based distribution operation in BookSource, as well as my old friends Trafalgar Square in Vermont to distribute in the US. But, if the flow of titles went above half a dozen a year, the enjoyment derived from once again being at the sharp end of publishing would quickly evaporate.</p><p>
Let me return to the underlying reason for this middle way. It is emphatically not for the international blockbuster, which must have the full panoply of big-business services, and will of course get them because of the size of the advance and the necessary hype. It is for the occasional book of real quality, and with reasonable sales potential, which publishers find more and more difficult to take on. </p><p>
I sympathise with publishing editors. Personal passion is not enough. Threats of resignation are a diminishing asset. Wringing of hands is heard throughout the land. My solution will not provide a general panacea, but it does prove that there is an alternative way. And, if this way has any vanity in its make-up, it is certainly not the author's. He or she is buying a set of services, certainly. What I hope they get is something more: the facility to become--and to feel--completely involved, every step of the way.</p><p>
Guaranteeing individuality?</p><p>
Whether Jason Epstein's dream of great conglomerates breaking up into small units ever materialises remains to be seen. I will watch with fascination mixed with trepidation what happens to John Murray in the next few years. Large publishers acquiring smaller publishers always say that they will guarantee to maintain that company's individuality, its way of publishing, its flavour, so difficult to define. Sometimes they even mean it. </p><p>
In an ideal world, my approach, my middle way, would not be needed. But it is not an ideal world. Empires do crash or crumble. The publishing industry is smallish beer, and conglomerisation will not go out of fashion. However, what we must never forget is that the author is important, and needs to be served. And there are certainly alternative ways of ensuring this. </p>