This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Ask any wine-soaked old boy two bottles into a good lunch at Soho’s Academy Club about the publishing business and he will sigh theatrically, take a large swig and say: “It’s not like it used to be.” Then he’ll drift into a reverie during which the following words will be dimly audible: “The Net Book Agreement … Books and Bookmen … proper advances, enough to live on …” Such is the fantastical recent past that never really existed.
There have always been a few writers who have been highly successful, a good-ish number who have scraped a living while combining writing with another job or (for the lucky ones) a private income, and vastly more who, if they are published at all, found their first book swiftly became their last.
Our fascination with the publishing industry is not the same as our enduring obsession with the professional and private lives of authors. Rather, it is the exploration of a large (and growing) international business powered entirely by the thought processes of solitary and often deeply odd people, and ruthlessly monetised by those dressed in rather sharper suits than the writers with whom they are in business.
Antipathy between the artist and the money-men is nothing new. As Pat Rogers details in his fascinating and revelatory book The Poet and the Publisher, the satirist and poet Alexander Pope spent a considerable part of his life — from around 1716 until his death in 1744 — fighting the bookseller and proto-publisher Edmund Curll over the issue of copyright. Curll was a Grub Street scoundrel who had made his name through pornographic literature and books of dubious medical advice with titles such as The Charitable Surgeon. The pornography was probably more useful.
Pope, when their paths crossed, was a leading figure who had achieved acclaim for such poetic works as The Rape of the Lock and The Temple of Fame. He was a short hunchback who made up for his unsightly appearance with a brilliant, cutting wit. But he remained insecure, not least because he was a Catholic.
Traditional accounts of the decades-long fight between Pope and Curll have favoured the former. After all, the rapacious bookseller published a collection of doggerel and falsely attributed it to the poet, leading to the first copyright battle in history.
Yet Rogers is a scrupulously fair-minded biographer. He structures The Poet and the Publisher as a quasi-courtroom drama, marshalling the often bizarre and inexplicable anecdotes and events with clarity and wit. He has previously written about Pope and, more surprisingly, Curll, and sighs in the preface that, should his body be cut open and a word found emblazoned on his heart, “the fatal name will be Curll”. Even as Rogers suggests that “I am pervaded by a sense of heroic failure”, this is a feeling unlikely to be shared by his readers, who will enjoy his tightly written tale with great learning worn pleasantly lightly.
Rogers is a scrupulously fair-minded biographer
There have, of course, been many characters like Curll, buck-a-minute shysters taking advantage of others’ talents. But contemporary publishing has changed beyond recognition. The traditional formats of hardbacks and paperbacks have been augmented by e-books and audiobooks and it is the often tense relationship between old and new media that provides the central dynamic of John B Thompson’s authoritative and scholarly Book Wars.
The conflict lies in the way that the internet and smartphones have both democratised the written word and made it apparently ephemeral. If one purchases a book on a machine, and the machine is lost or broken, did you ever really own it?
Another major development has been the inexorable rise of Amazon, which began as an online bookseller and has now metamorphosed into the most ubiquitous corporation on earth. As Thompson writes, quoting an awestruck executive: “the power of Amazon is the single biggest issue in publishing.”
Book Wars, which has the strengths and occasional longueurs of deep, thorough research, is excellent on how the publishing industry has been disrupted by the rise of self-publishing, which has democratised the process by allowing authors to become hugely successful without troubling the gatekeepers who have hitherto controlled the industry.
Some would argue that this is a good thing. Others insist that editors, agents and the paraphernalia of the industry are invaluable, that they retain some kind of check on the quality of what is produced, and that the time and investment spent in turning a manuscript into a work worthy of publication is justly repaid in the profits from book sales.
Yet, as Thompson points out time and again, whatever happens to the wider publishing industry, there can be little doubt that it’s the digital-first imprints in both Britain and America (whether the Amazon-owned Kindle Direct or savvy independents such as Canelo) that are looking to the future with impunity, rather than fear.
Pope notoriously attempted to poison Curll in a tavern. Today, he would have no need to take so emetic a vengeance. He would be able to start a social media campaign against him, and attempt to see Curll cancelled for malefactions real and exaggerated.
But the publisher might have the last laugh. As these two fascinating and salutary books show, it has always been the preserve of the unscrupulous to peddle their wares to the gullible and salacious. The only difference today is that they now have the internet to facilitate their sales. Be careful how you tell this to the old buffer in the Academy.
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