Madame Verdurin and the publisher

More than two thousand pages into À la recherche du temps perdu there is a brief mention of a Paris publisher who is said to have attended Madame Verdurin’s salon.

Un grand éditeur de Paris venu en visite, et qui avait pensé qu’on le retiendrait, s’en alla brutalement, avec rapidité, comprenant qu’il n’était pas assez élégant pour le petit clan. C’état un homme grand et fort, très brun, studieux, avec quelque chose de tranchant. Il avait l’air d’un couteau à papier en ébène.

This publisher had little in common with the tastes of the ‘fidèles’ and was not going to be constrained by their pretentious desire to dictate artistic taste. Now that’s what’s needed, cutting edge publishers with gravitas.

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Elizabeth Taylor goes from bookshop to plantation

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In Shillingworth-On-Thames Elizabeth Taylor is swept of her feet by John Wiley, the owner of a Ceylon tea plantation, and has amazing romantic adventures. Perhaps she would have been happier staying in the world of books, or perhaps things would have turned out differently if he had been another John Wiley.

Elephant Walk, 1954 – Director: William Dieterle

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In 1954 quite a few bright publishers secretly believed this

Muriel Spark’s fictional recollection of the London publishing world in A Far Cry from Kensington is a meandering tale that tells us something about the ways in which young ladies in the 1950s acquired “a job in publishing”, lost it, and found another.

There are several astute observations, including reference to “the common fallacy which assumes that if a person is a good, vivacious talker he is bound to be a good writer”. Her first, subsequently bankrupt and imprisoned employer, “had another, special illusion: he felt that men and women of upper-class background and education were bound to have advantages of talent over writers of more modest origins”.

The narrator adds: “In 1954 quite a few bright publishers secretly believed this”. In 2018, many still do.

Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988

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Tite and Snobby or Doolittle and Dalley?

The River Girl by Wendy Cope appeared in 1991 with lovely brush illustrations by Nicholas Garland. The narrative poem tells the tale of a young writer who, inspired by the river girl muse, becomes a great literary success. This does not make him a nice person and the river girl eventually leaves.

In John Didde’s search for a publisher we learn something about the (fictional) world of poetry publishing in Britain towards the end of the twentieth century.

Last month he sent his work to Tite and Snobby,
The publishers. Now he must wait and wonder
If it will go down well with that famed poet,
Tite’s editor, the dreaded Clinton Thunder.

He knows it’s good but will Clint Thunder like it?
Or will he have to try the Hatchet Press
Up North, or even Doolittle and Dalley?
And what if nobody at all says yes?

What curious names publishers have.

Wendy Cope, The River Girl, 1991

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Penguin…and all the other things we once thought mattered

Kif, the narrator of Richard Flanagan’s First Person, is writing a novel, but it’s going nowhere when his old pal Ray gets him the job of ghostwriting Ziggy Heidl’s autobiography. That’s how he and Ray ‘drifted into that world of publishing and celebrity‘ and meet Gene Paley and Pia Carnevale at the venerable firm of Schlegel TransPacific (known as Transpac or STP). As so often in contemporary novels, the golden age of publishing (including the downtown prestige offices) are part of the backdrop.

It was 1992, that time so close and now so far away when publishing executives still had such rooms and liquors cabinets; before Amazon and e-books; before phrases like granular analytics, customer fulfilment, and supply chain management had connected like tightening coils in the hangman’s noose; before the relentless rise of property values and the collapse of publishing saw publishers’ offices morph into abattoir-like assembly lines, where all staff sat cheek by jowl at long benches reminiscent, say, of Red Army canteens in Kabul, circa 1979.

Ziggy’s story is complicated and violent, but the book eventually gets written and published. Kif still has no success writing novels, but he moves to writing for TV where he has a stunning success.

Pia, the books editor, goes on to ‘survive the clearfelling of publishing companies that proceeded apace over the next few decades, finding at each point in the ever-diminishing forest another, higher tree which to climb. She ended up working at Penguin Random House in New York, the last of the great publishers in the last of great European cities [sic] and all the other things we once thought mattered.

First Person is published under the Chatto & Windus imprint, a part of none other than the Penguin Random House group of companies, where there is, no doubt, an editor – or perhaps more than one – who identifies with Pia.

Richard Flanagan, First Person, 2017

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Publishing lunch in New York

Kay Norris, one of the main characters in Ira Levin’s Sliver, is an editor at Diadem, and she epitomises the supposed glamour of New York trade publishing in the 1980s. She lunches in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons and at Perigord East. When the book was written it must have seemed like it would never end, but it did.

The Four Seasons at 99 East 52nd Street closed in July 2016 and the famous interior fittings were sold at auction. The Perigord, just down the street at 405, closed its doors in March 2017.

New York publishing and the publishing lunch are not what they used to be.

Ira Levin, Sliver, 1991

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On the shelf

In Austin Dobson’s A Bookman’s Budget of 1917, the compiler reproduces one of his own poems (On the Shelf first published in Methuen’s Annual) concerning the history of the books on the aforementioned shelf. The poem contains the following lines that provide a fitting description of much publishing, valid as much in 2017 as they were a hundred years ago.

I was one of three hundred. First twenty went off,
‘Complimentary copies,’ for critics to scoff,
Who were kind, on the whole. Other eighty were sold
(Less so much in the shilling); then, shop-worn and old,
And so for all saleable purposes dead,
We were promptly ‘remaindered’ at twopence a head.

Austin Dobson, A Bookman’s Budget, 1917

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