Small is Beautiful: In Defence of Independent Publishing

by Robin Baird-Smith

In recent years, world publishing has become like the frog in the La Fontaine fable. Publishing corporations have gobbled up so much in their determination to get bigger that they have been in danger of bursting. Having been in succession the editorial director in a large publishing corporation (Harper Collins), the Managing and Publishing Director of a sprightly small independent publisher (Duckworth) and now having my own imprint in another very large publishing house (Bloomsbury), I have seen this problem at first hand – from without and within.

The arrival in the UK of the American Publishing Conglomerate Crowell Collier and Macmillan in the early 1970s was the harbinger of the trend. This publishing monster gobbled up, at a stroke, five lively independent publishing houses. It looked impressive as a commercial move. But what was significant was that these five publishing houses were totally disparate, and editorially they occupied entirely different territories.

First there was the general publishing house Cassell, publishers of Winston Churchill and such highly acclaimed novelists as Nicholas Monsarrat and Eric Ambler. Next was Studio Vista, a publisher of art books, followed by Bailliere Tindall, a highly reputed publisher of medical books, and Johnson and Bacon, publishers of maps and guide books. Finally, and most strangely, Crowell Collier and Macmillan bought the Roman Catholic publishing imprint Geoffrey Chapman. To some this lumping together of imprints seemed bizarre, but the US purchasers believed that they had bought themselves into the British publishing market in a serious way. Size would equal strength. Critical mass was assured. Big would be beautiful and before them the somnolent British publishing world would quake.

How very wrong they were. It is hard to lump together such diverse publishing enterprises and make a commercial success. Cassell was a general publishing imprint, the others highly specialised, each requiring specialised techniques to sell and promote their books. The company was beset by staff strikes and overall the result was fairly disastrous – especially for the authors, often not at the forefront of a conglomerate’s consideration.

At that time most publishing houses were privately owned, and most often dominated by towering individuals – autocratic men, often but not always people with literary passion and wide culture. Typical were Sir Rupert Hart Davis, Sir Victor Gollancz and the one who outlived all the others, Colin Haycraft of Duckworth. Often they were lousy businessmen. The publishing houses were undercapitalised. But they were sustained by the belief that if a book was good it would sell and their judgement was what would make or break the business. Colin Haycraft once said that it did not matter what cover you put on a book; if it was good it would sell.

Among the publishing barons was a man who created a real revolution. This was Billy ( later Sir William) Collins. The publishing house which bore his name had been founded in the early 19th century to publish religious tracts aimed to combat alcoholism and moral corruption. Totally devoid of literary snobbery, Collins had a kind of Boy’s Own mentality. Other publishers were falling over themselves to acquire the rights to the latest novel by Heinrich Böll or Françoise Sagan, believing that they were making a significant contribution to culture. Collins was out selling books. His nose was for a huge middle brow audience and he was determined to reach it. He lived above the shop and battered his sales team daily and personally. Today we take this revolution for granted but in the 1960s the editors at Constable, for example, were phoning the bookshops themselves to try and sell the books for which they were responsible.

By the ‘70s publishing became sexy as an investment prospect and there were plenty of willing sellers. The old publishing barons could not cope with this new much more commercial climate and they sold up. And not just to US publishing conglomerates. Granada Television bought McGibbon and Kee. American Express bought Mitchell Beazley. As a consequence, the publishing world became divided into two distinct categories - the big corporate publishers and the small lively independents. There was a new crop of the latter – Fourth Estate, Serpents Tail and Bloomsbury a classic example. The first two have long since been gobbled up and Bloomsbury alone survives as the largest independent publishing house in London - though not without a little help from its close friend Master Harry Potter.

It was in response to the conglomeration of publishing houses, that the ‘small is beautiful’ cry began to be heard once again. After all, was it really all that wonderful for an author to be published by a house when your editor hides behind his or her voicemail and the only information you could receive about sales came from an increasingly incomprehensible royalty print-out? Where an editor had to get down on bended knee before an aggressive sales team in order to be allowed to take a book on?

Famously the novelist Muriel Spark moved from a big publishing house (Random House) to a small independent (Constable), and her sales increased four-fold. Perhaps it was better to be a big fish in a small pond, where the whole publishing house concentrated on one author and one book at a time and the editor actually picked up the phone. There is no reason why small independent publishers should not acquire sell and promote bestsellers.

As a result of the sales revolution I described earlier on, sales people were in the ascendant, hotly followed by their henchmen the accountants. This was in many ways a healthy evolutionary process. But the downside was the decline of the 'creative' departments, most particularly the power of the editorial department. Due to a regular decline in the unit sales of the vast majority of books (particularly due to the catastrophic decline in the library market), editors were ordered to produce more and more books. How else could turn over increase? And more and more attention was focused on acquiring and publishing bestsellers. More and more time was spent in meetings. As a result, a good deal of the creative role among editors moved to the literary agent. They had the ideas to match with authors and on occasion they even ended up editing the books themselves. Editors in publishing houses were just too busy. Editorial standards declined.

The picking away at publishers for sloppy editing and misprints in now a commonplace. Penguin, to my knowledge, is one of the few publishing houses left which has an editorial department devoted to copy editing and scrutinising the text. To be a good editor would be an ambition in itself, and editors should exercise their power and ingenuity to make the corporate systems work to their advantage and to the advantage of the authors for whom they work. But every author and aspiring author today must wonder how long the gobbling up of publishing houses will continue. There are not many sprats left. In my last job where I was involved in a start-up, we devoured no fewer than 14 publishing houses in eight years. Our investors were more interested in growth of turnover than short-term return on investment. It became insane and in the process much was destroyed.

So now the conglomerates have started to devour each other. The ‘fusion’ of Penguin and the Random House Group, approved by the Monopolies Commission, is the most recent example. Who will dominate in the so-called partnership? Where will the job losses come? What does this fantasy of publishing all books globally – the latest stand-up-and-cheer slogan – really entail? Is it really what the author wants, or what some distant proprietor, obsessed with corporate growth and size, believes is the way forward – the way to world domination?

The emphasis on bestsellers is the inevitable outcome of the processes that I have been describing. Overheads are so enormous in the publishing corporations, and the demand for return on investment so great, that bestsellers appear to be the only solution. Inevitably everything is devoted to the 'throughput’ of ‘product’, as it is so poetically described. To assist the process, publishing has moved into the glamour market – into hype. What is needed is a work ‘written by’, say, someone who had slept with Mick Jagger or been the wife of a notorious criminal. It was dumbing down in a monumental fashion. (An extreme example of this was the novel Swan, commissioned from the model Naomi Campbell; it turned out that she had needed rather a lot of help.)

Finally, let me say something about the IT revolution. Over the last decades, the arrival of the computer has had two disastrous consequences. The first is that because of the ease with which words can be brought up on a screen and played around with there, to be printed out at once in any or several forms, not only has the sheer volume of publications increased hugely, but the volume of utterly superfluous verbiage has increased with it. A book is contracted to be of a certain length for very good economic reasons. But nowadays the number of books delivered by authors to their publishers way, way beyond their prescribed length is terrifying. Some years ago I commissioned a biography of 75,000 words. Last week it was delivered eight years late and weighing in at 523,000 words. There is a plague of verbal diarrhoea.

The second has to do with the nature of reading – I would even say the art of reading. Reading has for centuries been the art of devouring and savouring the printed word. Enjoyment and understanding, and the enjoyment of understanding, are essential elements in the process. They are elements which for many people are missing for a text viewed on a screen: words that are somehow superficial - which is why, after all, one merely ‘surfs’ (skims the surface of, rides on the crest of) the net.

And yet the computer is the perfect instrument for storing and conveying information. So much is now available. Today you can purchase from the publishers two-thirds of all surviving ancient Greek literature up to the time of Alexander the Great. It is contained on just four easily obtainable discs, or accessible online. The contents amount to 3,400,000 words. How much easier and cheaper it is to have access to the entire 29 volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on a CD Rom rather than on a shelf of cumbersome heavy books. Why should essays not be published on the internet? A fear of technology in this instance is misplaced.

But this is not to announce the twilight of the printed word. George Steiner has said that the anti-bookish movement (for so he describes the digital revolution) will drive reading back to its birthplace. There will be ‘reading houses’ like old monastic libraries. In these places we will have the luxury of space: we will be able at last to go back and read in silence. We shall be able once again to engage with the printed word. There is nothing in the revolution of electronic media that need necessarily diminish the craft of reading.

I have worked for publishers of all shapes and sizes. The facelessness of large publishing corporations has frustrated me deeply, most particularly on the authors’ behalf. The experience of working for a small publisher which is strapped for cash is also deeply dispiriting. Worrying about who is going to get paid next – the printers, the authors the staff. Such experiences are not pleasant. By far the best experience is the one I have now. To have one’s own imprint, with its own name and its own identity as part of a much larger organisation which remains independent. Especially not one owned by Mr Murdoch, Mr Holzspring or Mr Bertlesman. To be at one’s desk to answer the telephone and to use the muscle, expertise of the publishing house to the advantage of one’s authors. For me this is indeed a dream come true.