Christopher Gasson mocks the voodoo economics of the modern book trade
The one good thing about the disappearance of small independent publishers in the face of the expansion of large international media corporations is that having your book rejected is a much less painful process. Thirty years ago you would have had to send your manuscript to 30 or 40 different publishers before you could be sure that it was more or less unpublishable. Authors could paper their bathrooms with rejection slips and wallow in the misery of it. In 1998, thanks to the recent round of publishing mergers, you need only send out 12 copies of your manuscript before being sure that you have a less than 2 per cent chance of appearing in print.
The best illustration of the disappearance of choice for authors is the Bertelsmann group, which now controls Chatto & Windus, Bodley Head, Jonathan Cape, Hutchinson, Century, Methuen, William Heinemann and Corgi. These were all independent companies in 1968.
When you sent your manuscript out 30 years ago the owner-publisher, who had the ultimate say on whether you would be published, usually had impeccable literary credentials. A source of comfort, perhaps, for a disappointed writer. Nowadays, the owners of a publishing house are most likely to be international financial institutions, plutocratic German families or worse. Of the six largest literary publishers, two are traded directly or indirectly on the London stock exchange, two are German owned, one is US owned, one Australian owned, and one is the subsidiary of a French arms manufacturer. Even the few remaining small publishers have some pretty dubious backers.
As an author one can draw strength from being rejected by such people. Being unrecognised by philistines has been a mark of literary greatness since Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was turned down by Mssrs Cadell in 1797.
The final reason why being rejected by publishers has become so painless is that most of the big groups do not actually read unsolicited manuscripts. Others, for fear of appearing unfriendly to authors, do it more discreetly, sending manuscripts back with cryptic notes of non-commitment: market conditions are not right, or something like that. The slush pile is a very frightening thing for today's publishers. This is not because it is uneconomic to pay someone to slog their way through it, but because the material has not been pre-selected.
In a corporate environment books cannot be published on the whim of one person. They must be fought for; and it's much easier fighting for a book when it comes with a powerful recommendation from someone outside the publishing house. That person is likely to be a literary agent, and the strongest possible recommendation that a literary agent can give a book is that nine other publishers are fighting for the right to publish it. As a result, most publishers would feel more confident about paying an agent £30,000 for a book than they would picking it up off the slush pile for free.
That the gates of the publishing world are now controlled by literary agents should provide further relief for rejected authors. Agents make their judgement of a manuscript on the basis of whether they think they can win a good advance for it. Books which are written by celebrities or journalists in a position to promote their own work, those which have some topical angle or those which are similar to recent best-sellers such as Bridget Jones's Diary or Longitude have the best chance of success. So-called "sleepers" written by unknowns who may take several books to build up a readership are less of an attractive proposition unless they come with a strong personal recommendation. As a result, getting published these days often says more about your networking skills than it does about your ability as a writer.
This may be comforting for rejected authors, but it is not so encouraging for readers, especially as the chorus of critics and prize judges who complain about the baleful standard of many contemporary books grows ever louder. One may blame the German plutocrats, City pension funds and French arms manufacturers who displaced the independent publishing houses which used to bristle with eccentricity in the Bedford Square area of London but, in fact, their determined pursuit of profit offers the best hope for those who feel the industry is in terminal decline.
To be profitable in publishing you must spot potential where no one else can. The undiscovered talent who is snapped up for a song, whose sales then build over the duration of copyright to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, is what most excites institutional shareholders about publishing. Self-congratulatory literary cliques who ignore emerging talent are not very attractive, not even to French arms manufacturers or plutocratic Germans. Which means that there will come a time when the owners of the large conglomerate publishing houses will ensure that five or perhaps four rejection letters is all it takes to make an author feel utterly miserable.