When I started out it was still possible to see the outlines of what book publishing had looked like for a century or more. The profession for gentlemen was still alive, but money-making was gradually becoming the true raison d’être of the enterprise, as bank managers began to click their teeth at long-running overdrafts. Not that those gentlemen were averse to making money — it’s more that it wasn’t their main motivation. The business still seemed to exist in order to make good books available rather than to make money off books good or bad. Now, to some extent this is a sentimental delusion; but even if it is so, there was definitely a different (better?) atmosphere back then.
What it was that sparked the transformation from self-satisfied, sleepy old book world into acquisition-mad conglomeration remains blurry. Ultimately I think it must just be because in the late nineteen-eighties investment opportunities were fewer and farther between* and desperate capitalists decided books should become a puffable commodity. The how and why may be unclear but the when is less so. According to Iain Stevenson in Book Makers (p. 259) it all happened in 1987 when Reed announced the takeover of Paul Hamlyn’s Octopus. “Reed valued the company he had built at £535 million, yielding him a personal fortune of £200 million and sparking a stock market frenzy for publishing assets. Publishing companies were in demand; they had suddenly become glamourous investments and, as we shall see, magnets for venture capital. The frowsty, down-at-heel image of book companies had at last been shattered, and it is arguable that Hamlyn had been the catalyst in making publishing the sexiest of investments.” So it’s all Paul Hamlyn’s fault? He was certainly a different figure from Sir Stanley Unwin, S. C. Roberts (also a Sir), and the other more or less frowsty patriarchs. His companies published bright, colorful books, manufactured with the market in mind. It is perhaps now hard to recognize that in its time this was a rather revolutionary move. Up until then people had been allowed to buy a book because they wanted it, not because we publishers had made them want it.
Sure there survived here and there remnants of that old Victorian book-peddling style which used to foist books onto unsuspecting innocents. (In this context see my earlier post Subscription publishing.) But unloading cheap, matched sets of Thomas Carlyle onto country-folk is a long way from the sophisticated marketing and sales-driven product selection for which we have striven over the last three decades. I keep maintaining that we will soon wake up and discover that it really hasn’t worked. It’s only over the last two or three years that publishers’ margins have budged upwards, and I think that is what is keeping the conglomerators’ spirits unrealistically high. But that profit boost is almost entirely due to the one-time effect of the legacy conversion from print to e-book lists. When e-books have to carry the whole cost of development their profitability will decline. This effect will be reinforced by demands for higher royalty rates plus the inevitable drop in sales quantity per title. New formats always garner a sales boost just because of their novelty. Then things settle back down.
I should not however be holding my breath for “Publishing’s Great Fall Back”. To an important extent the industry (or a large part of it) has already changed back to the situation prior to Paul Hamlyn’s enrichment. There are many small companies publishing sensibly small good books. There no doubt always were, though there do seem to be a lot more of them nowadays than there were twenty years ago. In falling into the trap of judging “publishing” by the yard-stick of trade publishing, I am of course perpetrating the very error I spend so much time decrying. There are several “publishings”. The one that leapt forward greatly in the eighties is represented in the modern public mind by the Big Five, though other creations of that time are those even larger education and professional/reference conglomerates we all tend to forget about†.
* I have no evidence that this really was so, so don’t build too much on this thesis. I appeal here to the right of the essayist beautifully stated by Max Beerbohm in the unfortunately titled, if nevertheless invaluable The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm, edited by Phillip Lopate (New York Review Books, 2015) — “I claim an essayist’s privilege of not groping through the library of The British Museum on the chance of mastering all the details”.