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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Angel’s publisher and life-long friend

There are two men in the life of the eponymous Edwardian novelist in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1957 novel Angel. She adores and marries one, the painter Esmé Howe-Nevinson. He is a wastrel and a philanderer, loses a leg in the 1914-18 war and dies a frustrated and disappointed man. The other is Theo Gilbright who survives her to become her literary executor. As it says in her will, he is Angel’s ‘publisher and life-long friend’.

The relationship between Angel and Theo – though much distrusted by Theo’s wife Hermione – is platonic and professional, and critical to the writer’s career. Angel is initially a ‘gold mine’ for the publishing house of Gilbright and Brace, but Theo remains loyal even when her books are no longer popular and the firm no longer feels able to publish her. She can no longer write and her fame lives on only in the tinned butter received during the next war in a food parcel from Australia, where some ‘old admirer of Angel’s books had sent it from the backwoods, where only, it seemed, they were ever read now’.

This testimony to the relationship between writers and publishers may no longer represent the world where agents hold sway and publishers no longer have such close relationships with or commitment to their authors, but one telling detail may still hold some truth.

When Theo is unhappy with some detail of Angel’s writing, he does not confront her head on, but says that changes are demanded or suggested by a fictional publisher’s reader, Mr. Delbanco. This tactic avoids any extreme conflict or needless unpleasantness in the publisher-author relationship, and one suspects such a ruse is still used today by clever book people.

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel, 1957

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Flip books unite alternative fact and fiction

At the beginning of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, Henry introduces the concept of the flip book: ‘a book with two front doors, but no exit’. The fiction will start at one end and the non-fiction essay at the other.

Meeting with his publishers at the London Book Fair, he is told that his idea for such a book on the Holocaust had not gone down well: ‘Henry was in high spirits. He thought they were a wedding party. In fact, they were a firing squad’. The book will not fit in the bookshop; readers will not understand; they keep asking ‘what is your book about?’

The group of publishers, supported by an academic and a bookseller, agree: ‘the idea of the flip book was an annoying distraction, besides being commercial suicide. The whole was a complete, unpublishable failure’.

In the current climate where alternative facts are more than ever confused with fake news and fictional events, perhaps some publishers will think again about the flip book and its possible place in explaining politics, history and current affairs.

Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil, 2010

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Mr Big Nose, our publisher

I have been sent a couple of pages of The 13-Storey Treehouse, one of which contains a picture of Mr Big Nose, a publisher who is demanding his book from the hapless authors.

They make the following observation.

We were a little behind schedule. Well when I say ‘a little behind schedule’, I mean a lot behind schedule. And when I say ‘a lot behind schedule’, I mean a LOT LOT LOT behind schedule.

As authors meet their publishers this week at London Book Fair, one can imagine many such encounters. Let’s hope the publishers are more understanding than Mr Big Nose.

 

Andy Griffiths (author) and Terry Denton (illustrator), The 13-Storey Treehouse, 2015

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Getting published may be easier for some

Some novels clearly state that they are about publishing, and Jonathan Galassi’s Muse is one of them. At one point it covers the evaluation process for new manuscripts untaken by the hero, Paul Dukach, in his first job.

“Manuscripts from literary agents would show up in neat gray or powder-blue boxes on his pockmarked old school desk, or in battered manila envelopes if they were coming from writers without representation, and he’d read through them with the requisite show-me detachment. In 90 percent of the case, you could tell within a page or two whether the writer could write. Ninety percent of the time, box or no box, he or she could not.”

You have to wonder if Muse, written by the longtime president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, went through the same critical process. Certainly the paperback edition contains glowing reviews from all parts of the New York publishing scene, something that isn’t much echoed in the reader reviews available on the internet. When it comes to choosing which books to publish, the platform and influence of the author may be more important than the young Paul Dukach thinks.

Jonathan Galas, Muse, 2015

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