Never trust a publisher

Once Twitter takes against you, they will wash their hands of you, Pontius Pilate-style


This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Here is an instructive little tale from the publishing world of 90 years ago. By the early 1930s the young Graham Greene’s career was in lowish water. His first work of fiction, The Man Within (1929) had been a resounding success. In its roseate aftermath he gave up his job on The Times and signed a contract with messrs Heinemann for a further three novels. The first two sank without trace. Everything hung on the reception of the third, Stamboul Train, set for publication in the autumn of 1932.

The lack of loyalty shown by Pan Macmillan to their author is shocking

At first the news was encouraging: Stamboul Train had been chosen by the Book Society, which in those days meant a guaranteed sale of 10,000 copies. Then came disaster. J.B. Priestley had decided that the character of “Mr Savory”, a pipe-toting, sub-Dickensian best-selling novelist, was a caricature of himself and had threatened a libel action. 

Worse, he was also published by Heinemann. Greene, who had never met Priestley nor read one of his books, suggested that any action should be contested. Alas, it was soon made clear to him “that if Heinemann were going to lose an author they would prefer to lose me”; he was compelled to alter the proof more or less on the spot.

Fast forward to 2022 and the equally instructive little tale of Kate Clanchy, author of Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, whose recent throwing over by the firm of Pan Macmillan has become a cause celebre in the national press. 

The Secret Author has not read Ms Clanchy’s account of how she encouraged a large number of secondary school children, many of them from ethnic minorities, to appreciate and write poetry, so he is unable to comment on the “racial stereotyping” that supposedly besmirched her portrayal of them. What he would like to comment on, on the other hand, is the shocking lack of loyalty shown by Pan Macmillan to their author.

Here a certain amount of context is in order. How does the average book get published? Well, what usually happens is that the writer’s agent sends in a specimen chapter or two and an outline of the remainder, readers and editors respond, a deal is struck and the manuscript then begins its long and tightly-invigilated journey through the publishing process. 

Which is to say that it is read and reviewed by its sponsoring editorial director, its editor proper, its copyeditor, quite often in the case of non-fiction by a lawyer, and by the publicists charged with promoting it to the trade and the world at large. At a rough guess, a dozen of Pan Macmillan’s employees must have read Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me before it appeared on the Waterstones shelf. 

Whatever an unforgiving posterity may think of it, Ms Clanchy’s sponsors clearly had no objections to what she had written at the time they published it and were more than happy to luxuriate in its considerable success. Whether or not the book contains anything objectionable, its contents had their enthusiastic seal of approval and for them to jettison Ms Clanchy and her backlist at the first hint of trouble is simple cowardice.

Why do publishers behave like this? Why do they always climb down, turn scarlet with embarrassment and cravenly retreat? The Secret Author was a mere child in fretful transit around the Grub Street literary editors’ offices of the early 1990s, but he can still remember the equally depressing case of that gallant ornament of the British book trade, Amanda Craig, and the saga of her novel A Vicious Circle (1994). 

The Pan Macmillan reaction is merely a Pilate-style evasion of responsibility

Ms Craig had ventured a satirical account of the London publishing world which, as is the way of things, was thought to verge on the roman a clef. Her publishers then received a letter from the literary journalist, David Sexton, suggesting that he might possibly be the original of one of the venal hacks so wittily lampooned.

Had Mr Sexton threatened legal action? There is some doubt but whatever the force of his remonstrance, it was enough for Ms Craig to have her contract cancelled and be forced to find another sponsor. 

Back in the Greene era, publishers did at least have some excuse for their timidity. Libel law in those days was a litigant’s free lunch and there were crook firms of solicitors who spent their time combing through novels with distinctively-named characters in recognisable locales, hoping to match them up with real people. Not wanting trouble, the publishers invariably settled out of court.

Ninety years later, though, the Pan Macmillan reaction is merely a Pilate-style evasion of responsibility, which allows an author to carry the can for a corporate failure. Malcolm Muggeridge’s father once advised him “never work for a liberal. They’ll give you the sack on Christmas Eve.” 

Well, never put your trust in a publisher. Once Twitter takes against you, or the Guardian starts to have doubt about your moral salubriousness, they’ll throw you out in the street.

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