Friday, 27 March 2009

“Fair Play is Foul and Foul Play is Fair”

This is, in a nutshell, what is happening in British publishing today.

Yesterday I went to one of the loveliest parties in years, to celebrate Capuchin Classics’ first birthday. Capuchin Classics, for the few of you who don’t know, is a great independent run by Hugh Grant’s younger and posher brother, who is known to the publishing community by the name of Max Scott. Their motto is “Books to keep alive”.

The venue was the company’s headquarters in Notting Hill, next door to Lucian Freud, I am told. As I have reported in a previous blog, all the antiques and works of art scattered casually in every nook and cranny of the house are properly insured.

This party was great because I didn’t see many of the obnoxious faces you bump into at other parties, and because I met a few interesting people, including two of Capuchin’s crusading editors – Emma and Christopher. The latter surprised the audience at one point with what must go down in history as one of the most politely controversial speeches in publishing history. I have been allowed to report it verbatim, as it’s a kind of press release:

“Interestingly, it was John Milton who, way back when the book was still, literally, fairly novel, observed that 'Books are not absolutely dead things, but contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are.'

That sense of a legacy, then, is ever-present in today’s publishing industry. Or at least it should be. Those houses publishing in this tradition are relatively few in number – a couple are here tonight. Their books are published in the same spirit – that, literally, of making public. The view is on the long-term sales, and reaching every possible outlet.

Last year a new imprint launched, protégé of Faber and Faber, no less, which seeks not so much to put books before a browsing, buying public as to snuffle up authors’ estates from across the cannon.

We see this as a force against that tradition of a legacy. Sure, it keeps the book in print, but in the narrow sense of the term. The majority on that particular list are simply put out 'print on demand'. (The POD formula being, of course: chap walks into shop, orders a copy of Lucky Jim, book gets printed). While there are concessions for living authors (in the form of a release clause should a rival publisher put in an offer), this model is in our view lazy publishing, and short-sighted at best.

Our book-buyer had to know that Lucky Jim existed in the first place. After all, the fundamental truth remains that you cannot ask for what you do not already know exists – a law that applies as much to bookshops as it does in the land of Google. It is not, then, truly making public.

‘Foul play’, I hear you cry – and you’d be right. For this surely marks a step away from what it is to publish, and what it means to keep books alive. To the agents among you I would urge caution before conceding an author’s works to what is admittedly a prestigious name, but one that arguably undermines what it means, properly, to publish.”

I will only add Amen to that.

And to conclude this blog, I will say that there were only a couple of crazy women at this party, and that for some reason David Birkett, Capuchin’s sales director, the only working-class person – apart from me – in the house, I believe, seems to be developing a dangerous aristocratic lilt to his Londoner’s accent. I am really starting to worry about him.


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