The bad old days

The “golden years” of publishing were characterised by booze, bullying and amateurishness


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

For all the tides of fashionable cant that continue to spill out of its upper reaches, the UK publishing industry is, was, and you suspect always will be a deeply reactionary concern.

Nowhere is this innate conservatism more flagrant than in the clouds of nostalgia that periodically arise over old-school publishing memoirs and the biographies of titanic book-world figures from days gone by (see, for example, the reviews of Thomas Harding’s recent life of Lord Weidenfeld.)

Ah, the publishers of yesteryear, as V.S. Pritchett might have said. Through a haze of boozy lunches and unearned advances, we see their rubicund (and mostly male) faces. These, you infer, were the good old days, the days before conglomerates and mega-marketing and celebrity children’s books, the days when Jonathan Cape and Secker & Warburg and Chatto & Windus were stand-alone firms rather than minor satrapies in mighty empires, the days when novels took their chance on a level playing field rather than being propelled onto the bestseller lists by outsize publicity budgets.

Lord Weidenfeld

They were the days in which behemoths such as Lord Weidenfeld and Chatto’s Carmen Callil and Cape’s Tom Maschler marauded around Bloomsbury like so many rogue elephants, dragging off new talent with a pzazz that 21st century bean-counters could never hope to emulate. Bliss it was, surely, in that new dawn to be alive?

Well, up to point. The Secret Author took his first tentative steps along Grub Street in the mid-1980s, and he remembers it all rather differently. One thing he remembers is the amateurishness of the principles by which most publishing firms were run, the tolerance habitually extended to weak links in the administrative chain, the overstaffing and the poor working practices.

For poor working practices read bullying (not necessarily by men) and a booze culture which, in some firms and at some levels, made after the early-to-mid-afternoon period a time in which professional activity was more or less put on hold.

Jeremy Lewis’s memoirs have a wonderful portrait of the young Jilly Cooper, then employed by William Collins, abundant hair falling into her typewriter after such a session.

Worse, the amateurishness extended to commercial decision-making. Debut works of fiction in those days were issued randomly and with no great effort put into their promotion, so shiftily and sparsely, in fact, that an industry joke-word — “privished” — was coined to describe the process.

Sometimes a book, and a career, took off; sometimes they didn’t, but there was no way for the writer involved to chart a course. When, at the end of the 1980s, transatlantic money began to irrigate these dry reed-beds, the amateurishness displayed itself in paying inordinately large sums for books that would never come near to earning out their advances.

A reputable firm of chartered accountants would have flung up their hands in horror

The Secret Author remembers a literary agent chum of his being invited by the parent company of a distinguished literary imprint to examine its finances, with a view to determining where economies might be made.

He discovered one novel on the list — well reviewed and widely publicised — which had earned back exactly five per cent of the advance given to its proud author, meaning that if, as was probably the case in those days, the down payment had been £100,000 the firm had lost a cool £95,000 on the project.

The early 1990s were full of this kind of excess — the £250,000 bestowed on Timothy Mo for The Redundancy of Courage (1991), the £500,000 lobbed at Martin Amis for The Information (1995), the £600,000 reputedly trousered by Peter Ackroyd for Dickens (1989): marquee purchases, all of them, which made money only for author and agent.

Then there was the tribe of “maverick” managing directors — George and Carmen and all the others — who were capable of combining a high degree of inspiration and resourcefulness with people skills so deficient that most modern human resources departments would have had them removed from their posts within a week.

It was wonderful to have them on your side if you happened to be a promising young author with a manuscript to hand, and a deeply disillusioning experience (should you be one of their employees) to sit in the same building as them, attend to their explosions of temperament and submit to being the (mostly) uncomplaining victim of their caprice.

There never was a golden age. Certainly, it was something to be taken on by a prestigious independent firm 35 years ago. You were made much of, by intelligent people who, when they weren’t attending to you, were probably editing the works of Angus Wilson and Italo Calvino, and you were given to understand that in however vestigial a way you were participating in the high culture of your day.

At the same time, you were uneasily conscious of the fact that a reputable firm of chartered accountants, if invited onto the premises, would have flung up their hands in horror and started firing people on the spot. Yes, publishing is (or was) a glamour profession, but really there is a lot to be said for staidness.

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