The problem with publishers: End of the word as we know it

I once received an advance for a book that sold so poorly, I feel an awkwardness verging on nausea whenever I bump into anyone connected to its publication and to this day expect a writ of some kind to drop through the door.

New Statesman
A new series draws attention to the state of British publishing. Image: Getty

Publishing Lives

Radio 4

A five-part series on key figures from British publishing (Allen Lane, Geoffrey Faber, etc; 30 September to 4 October) was perfectly timed – the ebook is now responsible for almost 35 per cent of fiction sales. “Publishers have been living through the biggest paradigm shift since William Caxton set up shop in Westminster some 500 years ago,” asserted the presenter (and one-time publisher) Robert McCrum with that slight post-stroke drawl, though not as evident as in summer, when he fronted a series about literary sins in which he sounded less confident, overly peeved.

But here McCrum rather twinklingly described Byron holding court at John Murray’s offices on Albemarle Street and spoke of the poet’s occasionally troubled but essentially decent relationship with John Murray II. There was no mention of Byron or Jane Austen tapping JM for increasingly insane advances. A publisher friend tells me that successful authors and their agents renegotiating long-signed contracts and pushing up advances is a modern trend that has become ruinously burdensome.

And yet it is the publisher – the gatekeeper to a whole culture of editors, designers, booksellers, journalists, radio producers, presenters and beyond – that carries all the risk in this system. I once received an advance for a book that sold so poorly (this is not false modesty), I feel an awkwardness verging on nausea whenever I bump into anyone connected to its publication and to this day expect a writ of some kind to drop through the door. How can I have been allowed to walk away without a visit to the debtors’ prison or at the very least time spent in front of a judge explaining what the fuck happened?

Despite McCrum’s insistence that “there will be some future”, phrases such as “everything is now at stake” sounded more felt. Sure, there was lively talk of the success of Faber’s Waste Land app. Of course it was successful; that poem is uniquely performative, the perfect length for an app; and the greatest actors in the world lined up to be a part of it. But how many Waste Lands do we have? It can hardly be cited as a future model. Ultimately, there was unequivocally a question mark hovering over the future of the industry. So much so, that in the end, any moments of defiant gaiety sounded merely like mouths opened to say “cheese”.