Profile m.d. Andrew Franklin has defended UK trade publishers against criticism that they are not producing good non-fiction books.
Franklin was writing in the Guardian in response to the Spectator’s literary editor, and Profile author, Sam Leith, who said mainstream trade publishing was “getting dumber by the day”, while university presses were in a “golden age”. He said: “At the moment, I don’t think there’s a trade publishing house producing high-calibre, serious non-fiction of the quality and variety of Yale University Press; and snapping at its heels are Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Cambridge and Chicago.”
He accused trade publishers of trying to imitate big successes and of being risk-averse. But responding today (2nd July) Franklin said “tough times for publishing” were forcing trade publishers “to be better, leaner and more competitive”.
“Now, more than ever, there’s no space for dead wood on a list, and we have to be more selective about the quality of the books we publish,” he continued.
He admitted that “all publishers produce some stinkers…because we take risks and we make mistakes” but that “for every uninspiring, derivative or just plain bad book that gets taken on by the mainstream publishing houses, there are some brilliant, courageous and quirky ones.”
“It’s true that the success of Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker and co has spawned a crop of imitations – some of which are impressive and intelligent, and others which are less so,” said Franklin. “But to suggest that this is what makes up the majority of trade publishing houses is like looking at the success of Fifty Shades of Grey and saying that contemporary literary fiction is dead. One imagines that Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro would disagree with that idea, just as I think that Owen Jones, Helen Macdonald, Atul Gawande and Margaret Macmillan would disagree with Sam’s contention here.”
Franklin accused university presses of operating on a “scatter-gun approach, publishing many books and hoping for a few successes”, and said trade publishers received more review coverage and their authors were invited to more festivals because trade publishers put “much more work into publicising and marketing them, and we also make sure that the books are in the bookshops”.
He also said: “Oxford University Press, while a huge powerhouse that helps fund the university, does not publish trade non-fiction in Oxford, concentrating on magnificent reference books, textbooks, ELT dictionaries and journals”. He added that Manchester and Edinburgh University presses were "both impressive and important but tiny, turning over less than £4m a year between them,” and that American university presses published “great prize-winning books” but had huge subsidies.
“Of course, it’s hard to publish any books at all unless you can get the authors to deliver them in the first place,” Franklin concluded. “And Sam, that reminds me: you are due to deliver your next book for us soon.”