The literary world lost some legendary figures in the past couple of years. One was Jeremy Lewis, the chronicler of the golden age of British publishing who died in April. I spoke to him in January about how publishing has changed since his heyday. “Publishers used to be household names” he told me “Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and Carmen Callil founder of Virago were regulars in the gossip columns”. When Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books died in 1970 it was front page news. Towering figures such as George Weidenfeld, Andre Deutsch and Peter Owen, emigre Jews from Central Europe who transformed British publishing, were often better-known than their authors. Deutsch died in 2000 and both Owen and Weidenfeld died last year.
Lewis wrote a series of memoirs about his time in publishing. I was surprised by the sheer amount of drinking that went on. It was an industry lubricated with alcohol. At editorial meetings at Andre Deutsch there would be wine. Lewis writes of working with Kingsley Amis on the New Oxford Book of Light Verse where they would start on the white wine at 11am on the dot. Deals were done over long liquid lunches at L’Etoile on Charlotte Street, the Garrick Club or the Groucho Club in Soho.
Writer, editor and luncher Jeremy Lewis
Editors could make instant decisions over a boozy lunch because they wielded tremendous power. Sales, marketing and publicity were junior professions with no say over acquisitions. It was entirely up to the editor what was published. The industry began to change in the 90s. The ending of the ending of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 meant that supermarkets began selling discounted books which paved the way for Amazon. Bestselling author and journalist, Francis Wheen, however, thinks the rot was setting in as early as the 1980s. He told me:
“I proposed to Gail (Rebuck of newly-formed publishing house Century) that we should discuss a new travel book over lunch at the Reform Club, saying that this would be most auspicious since the Reform was where Around The World in Eighty Days started. I even offered to pay – but no, Gail said we would have the meeting at their office over bought-in sandwiches and mineral water, thank you very much. I abandoned my travel book there and then.”
I caught the tail end of the long lunch culture when I started in publishing in the early 00s. We were told quite firmly not to let one author, a well-known cricket writer, to get hold of the wine list. Another writer I worked with used to attack lunch as if he hadn’t eaten or drunk for weeks. He’d have a cocktail to start, a bottle with the meal and then order a brandy afterwards. It seems like a long time ago now.
In the 80s publishers began to merge into corporations. The largest was created in 2013 when Penguin merged with Random House. Editors now have to build a consensus with sales often having the final word. I remember the soul-destroying corporate speak of editorial meetings: ‘going forward’ ‘KPI – key performance indicator’ and, oddest of all, ‘pre-mortems’ – a budget sheet that editors filled out before acquiring a book. It’s what Jeremy Lewis refers to as the “Perrier Culture. “
You have to be sober to deal with all that. One can hardly blame publishers for becoming risk averse though when sales are often so poor. Nielsen, the company that track book sales, published data that showed in 2001 the average novel sold 1152 copies, now it’s 263. No wonder publishers are so cagey about releasing figures. The writer Roger Lewis (a relative of Jeremy Lewis’s) told me: “The point really is that ever since sparkling water came in and boozy publishers’ lunches got the heave-ho there has been no actual improvement in English literature. No discernible improvement whatsoever.”
The market has become polarised between the authors who sell in large quantities and those who sell next to nothing and advances reflect this. Philip Gwyn Jones, one of London’s most experienced publishers with stints at Harpercollins, Granta and now Scribe, told me about “the evaporation of midlist, nowadays advances are either under £25k or over £100k.” Paying large amounts is a way to get attention both in house and without. It’s a sign of a lack of confidence. Big books are hyped up by literary agents who “skew the market” according to Ros Porter from Granta magazine. Agents have become increasingly influential as most publishers now don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.
There are still some larger than life personalities stalking the corridors of publishing houses, however. Figures such as Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury and Jamie Byng at Canongate function as ambassadors for their firms, their authors and for literature in general. When Canongate won the Booker Prize with Yann Martel’s the Life of Pi in 2001, many newspapers were more interested in Byng than the author. Byng with his trademark poodle hair is probably the nearest thing we have today to a publishing celebrity but I doubt even he is widely known outside the industry.
Ravi Mirchandani at Picador is more low key but he has a formidable reputation within the industry for, as agent Charlie Campbell puts it, ‘swimming against Nielsen.’ “Spending too much time paying attention to what previous books sold is not particularly helpful when acquiring literary fiction. A publisher’s job is, in part, predicting what the public might think” Mirchandani told me. He points out that pre-Corrections, Jonathan Franzen had woeful figures.
As the publishing conglomerates get bigger and less nimble, it presents an opportunity for small presses. In private most publishers curse Amazon because it eats into their profits and author royalties, and puts the traditional bookseller out of business. But it can be a boon for the small boys: Humfrey Hunter from Silvertail press, a one man publishing house, is “very very pro-Amazon, I wouldn’t have a business without them. They open up the world for company like mine.” He was the only British publisher brave enough to publish Lawrence Wright’s American bestseller on Scientology and scandalously also penned an article in the Bookseller in favour of leaving the European Union.
Despite all the changes, one of the reassuring things about publishing is that even in the vast super companies, everyone reads. The heads are usually from a publishing background rather than outside corporate types. “It’s still a business governed by instinct and charisma. That hasn’t changed” Philip Gwyn Jones told me. And most publishing deals are still done over lunch, they just tend not to be terribly long or boozy. Me, I left publishing in 2015 to pursue a career as a drink writer. Now, there’s an industry that still knows how to lunch.
This is a version of something I wrote for a website called Heat Street which has now disappeared. You can read something of its rather tortured genesis here.