Controversial publishing in 1990

In a chapter called September 1990 (right at the end of the Thatcher years) of Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up, Michael Owen goes to see two publishers about his book on the Winshaws. They have quite different views about the project. At Peacock Press (where, unlike Barley Blair, they drink water in plastic beakers) Patrick Mills complains that “the whole business has changed out of all recognition. We get all our instructions from America and nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to anything I say at editorial meetings”. On the question of the Winshaw book, Patrick Mills is clear.

‘Hmm.’ Patrick put his forefingers together and laid them thoughfully against his mouth. ‘Well, what does that leave us with, exactly? That leaves us with a book which is scurrilous, scandal-seeking, vindictive in tone, obviously written out of feelings of malice and even, in parts – if you don’t mind me saying – a little shallow.’

I breathed a sigh of relief. ‘So you’ll publish it?’

‘I think so. Subject to your carrying out the necessary revisions, and, of course, providing it with some sort of ending.’

While discussing the state of publishing, Patrick bemoans the number of new novels being written by media personalities.

‘Oh yes, they’re all it now, you know. It’s not enough to be stinking rich, land yourself one of the most powerful jobs in television and have two million readers paying good money every week to find out about the dry rot in your skirting board: these people want fucking immortality! They want their names in the British Library catalogue, they want their six presentation copies, they want to be able to slot that handsome hardback volume between the Shakespeare and the Tolstoy on their living room bookshelf.’

The publisher also feels the stress to compete on books about contemporary issues.

‘The thing is that if don’t get a biography of Saddam Hussein into the shops in next three of four months, we’re going to get crapped on by every publisher in town.’ He looked up at me with a sudden desperate gleam in his eye. ‘Maybe you could do one for us. What do you say? Six weeks’ research, six weeks’ writing. Twenty thousand upfront if we keep all the overseas and serial rights.’

The second publisher, Vanity House, publishes “such choice items as Great Plumbers of Albania, 300 Years of Halitosis, the Reverend J.W. Pottage’s pioneering study, So You Think You Know about Plinths, and a frankly unforgettable memoir – although its author’s name escapes me – entitled A Life in Packaging – Fragments of an Autobiography: Volume IX – The Styrofoam Years”.

Mrs Tonks, the editor who sends Owen a selection of such titles each Christmas, tells him that Vanity House has been burgled and the manuscript of the Winshaw book has been stolen. In contrast to the views at Peacock Press, this causes a stir at Vanity House. Mr. McGanny, the managing director, who speaks in the “suave drawl of the Oxbridge- and public-school-educated Englishman” is perturbed and doesn’t like it at all. “I’ll be frank with you, Owen” he says. “I don’t approve of controversy”.

Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up, 1994

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