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This testimony to the relationship between writers and publishers may no longer represent the world where agents hold sway and publishers no longer have such close relationships with or commitment to their authors, but one telling detail may still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

“I apprehend caducity” says Bennett in Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, a book that shows us different aspects of ageing.

The cast of older people write and read books, and they are not always against the digital, even though they come from an era when “even university press publishing parties aspired to glamour”. They read their i-pads and kindles, while still reserving a special place for the printed book. The writers have rows with their publishers “over e-books and royalties on reprints”, and can complain as so many do: “We never got to grips with the contracts for the e-books, I think the publishers took him for a ride”.

One of the characters, Teresa, dies as the result of a fall when trying to reach a book on her library shelves, but her son will never know which book it was: “Nobody will ever know. She has taken this small secret with her, and will shortly take it to her grave in St Mary’s churchyard, Kensal Green”.

Caducity: look it up.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises, 2016

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Who exactly buys “art books”?

‘Who exactly buys “art books”?’ Widmerpool asks in Volume 2 of A Dance to the Music of Time, the sort of difficult question the newcomer to publishing may be asked at any party, and not always one that can be answered convincingly.

His questions became more searching when I tried to give an account of that side of publishing, and my own part in it. After further explanations, he said: ‘It doesn’t sound to me like a very serious job.’

Widmerpool advises the narrator: ‘You should look for something more promising. From what you say, you do not even seem to keep very regular hours.’

The answer is revealing about one of the pleasures of a publishing career in former times: ‘That’s its great advantage.’

Anthony Powell, A Buyer’s Market, 1952

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Books and hats are things of the past

Bodo Kirchhoff’s Widerfahrnis won the Deutscher Buchpreis in 2016. It is story of loss and yearning, about love and journeys across continents, and it says a little about a life lived through books and publishing.

After thirty years Reither has given up on his small publishing house and retired to Bavaria, from where one night he takes off to the south with Leonie Palm, a member of a local reading group and previous owner of a failed hat shop. It seems that only the rich now want or need books and hats. As they drive south through Austria and Italy, they smoke and listen to music, learn a little about their respective life histories, their different losses; they meet a refugee child and a family from Nigeria, and then part company.

Publishing, books and bookselling pop up throughout the book. It is books that bring Reither and Palm together in the first place, and one short self-published title, Ines Wolken, creates a bond between them. The breast pocket of the shirt where Reither keeps his cigarettes reminds him of his book fair days, as does the leather jacket that Leonie Palm wears on their road trip and which is the one thing of his she keeps at the very end of the book.

Reither started in the business selling pirated books on a street stall, and he yearns for those days and a woman he knew then who sold feminist books at a nearby stand, but who never became part of his life. He liked editing, choosing appropriate covers for his books, but during his trip he realises that life cannot be managed like the publishing process: “Nun war das Leben keine Neuerscheinung im Reither-Verlag”.

Towards the end of the book he is pressed about his previous work by the Nigerian who helps him. He replies simply in English (with a little German conjunction): “Making und selling books”.

What else is there to say about a life in publishing?

Bodo Kirchhoff, Widerfahrnis, 2016

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The last season of the avant-garde

The Last Season of the Avant-Garde is a (presumably fictional) work of the (real) Berlin artist Bastian Schneider, part of Documenta 13 as it is reimagined and reviewed by Enrique Vila-Matas in The Illogic of Kassel. As the author meanders round the diverse artworks he encounters Schneider’s work twice, which had “a small machine attached to it that looked like an old wall-mounted telephone, but was in fact a tiny, peculiar printing press“.

On the first occasion he reads a poem attached to the work and then sees that if “you pushed the button on the little machine beneath the word fröhlich, it would crank into motion and spit out a scrap of paper on which Schneider gave his opinion that the contemporary artist these days was in the same position as the traveling artist of the pre-Aufklärung (the period before the German Enlightenment), writing not for an established community, but rather in the hope of founding one.”

The second time he presses the button, “the text warned that at night, when there was no one there, the place was taken over by beings wearing Polynesian masks, singing songs from the future, songs that will be sung six centuries hence in a very different Germany, but one where Lichtenberg will still be read, even if it is only out of respect for that passage in which he expressed his conviction that, without his writing, such different things would be discussed ‘between six and seven on a certain German evening in the year 2773’.”

The theme of this Documenta is Collapse and Recovery and the little printing machine, with its comments on creating communities and the longevity of print, gives us a view on the collapse and recovery of publishing in the post-Enlightenment digital world.

Enrique Vila-Matas, The Illogic of Kassel, 2014

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This book that left the format of the book itself behind

In Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, the Company is working on the Koob-Sassen Project, and the narrator is hired to write the “Great Report…The first and last word on our age”: an exciting prospect.

“When Peyman, with his visionary vagueness, handed me my epic, my epochal, commission, this Great Report, the sense that anything might end up forming part of this made everything I came across, every event I lived through, glow and buzz with potential even more.”

The author soon discovers that any project that is too open-ended will founder.  Although the commission is not from a publisher but from the mysterious Company, there’s a need for direction and editorial guidance, as anyone might realise, including Peyman.

“I pictured Peyman back, once more, with all his moguls, mover-shakers and connectors, laughing at me, laughing at the thought that I could have believed, even for a moment, he was serious…Even when I reasoned these last, deranged notions back out to the fringes of my mind, I was still left with the immovable fact of the thing’s unwritability.  This filled me with anger, and a feeling of stupidity, and sadness, too – grief not for the actual loss but, worse, for a potential or imaginary one: this beautiful, magnificent Report; this book, the Book, the fucking Book, that was to name our era, sum it up;this book that left the format of the book itself behind, this book-beyond-the-book; and beyond even this, the tantalising and elusive possibility of transubstantiated now-ness, live-ness it was to inaugurate – the possibility, thetis, of Present-Tense Anthropology ™. All that was gone. Which, in turn, raised the question: What was I still there for?”

In an age of grand ambitions for publishing – with their vortices of digital accumulation, voracious remixes and mash-ups – the author’s role remains to pick and choose between the possibilities, muster the serendipity of choices, and go, as the narrator does at the end of this fascinating novel, “back into the city”.

Tom McCarthy, Satin Island, 2015



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