The “cosy” world of publishing

Gentlemen. When reading about the history of the publishing industry, this is the word that jumps out at you, smack you in the face with a white silk glove and tell you to open up your eyes. The publishing of books has always been acknowledged as a gentlemen’s hobby; something a man of honour would do, not with an agenda to make a profit, but with an agenda to provide the world with literature worthy to educate and entertain. 

When Stuart Evers, journalist and author of Ten Stories About Smoking, tries to explain why the publishing industry is recognised as far more civilised than others within the arts, he immediately states the opposite of the way the business was built.

“It is an industry dominated by women, which kind of changes the dynamics,” Evers says, “whereas the music industry, as an example, is to a majority male-centric. If you look at publishing houses today, the head of Harper Collins is a woman, the head of Random House is a woman. It does bring a sort of solidarity between people.”

Evers, who worked in publishing for seven years before becoming a professional writer, estimates the gender ratio within publishing to 60-40% in favour of women. On the flipside, a survey published by Creative and Cultural Skills in 2009 showed that 66% of people in the music business are men.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that people backstab each other but there’s a lot of jocking for position. But having said that, people still want to get on, they still want to be as professional as they can be and that can work differently from men to women in going about things in a less aggressive way,” Evers says.

Part of the chain that connects the author to the reader is agents. Andrew Kidd worked as a publisher and editorial director for publishing houses such Picador, Macmillan and Hamish Hamilton for 14 years before becoming an agent with Aitken Alexander Associates 2008. He wanted to experience both sides of the business, and he wished to have more independence than he had before.

Kidd believes that the humane climate within publishing is due to tradition and the fact that it’s quite localised. Within the English speaking part of the industry, literature is divided into hubs based in New York, London and, to an extent, Melbourne. But while looking to do business internationally, the number of people involved is quite small.

“Historically it’s been built very much on personal relationships and not particularly corporate or overly structured, which I think means that it becomes more civilised. Because the basis of those personal relationships is very important. If you act too aggressive or ‘sharklike’ you end up burning a lot of bridges, and that you don’t want to do,” Kidd says.

But, publishing is after all an enterprise, and even though it’s romanticised as an industry where beautiful craftsmanship is key, the root of it all is making money. “The danger and the downside of it being too personal is that people sometimes can take things for granted when they shouldn’t. We’re all trying to make money and be successful in one way or another,” Kidd says.

“So there are moments when it becomes less civilised and less gentlemanlike, but not in a sustained way. In this part of culture it’s still very decent. I think that that’s certainly the case in the UK; perhaps it’s a bit more aggressive in New York where the market is bigger and slightly less cosy than it is here traditionally,” he says.

The music industry is less likely to be described as “cosy”. Take the case of Steven Stelfox, for example. Stelfox lived in London in the 1990s. He was attractive; he was in the prime years of life. And as a person he was racist, sexist, deranged, disturbed, heartless and soulless. Steven Stelfox was a psychopath, and he was very, very successful in the record business.

John Niven is the creator of Steven Stelfox, who is the main character of his book Kill Your Friends. Before becoming a fulltime author in 2002, Niven worked as an A&R – just like Stelfox – for record labels such as London Records and Independiente.

Niven himself claims to have been useless at his job, but to become a big shot in such a competitive industry, he means that at least an inch of your brain have to be like Stelfox’s. Being a full blown psycho is, of course, pushing it a bit too far, but the ability to “put yourself first” if someone comes in your way is vital – be it a friend, father, mother, brother, or just an intern. Simply put, the music industry is not a place for the light-hearted.

Now, almost ten years after Niven left the life of a talent scout behind, and with experience from both writing and music, he’s got an interesting view on the different businesses.

“I have to say that the publishing industry, compared to the music industry, is incredibly gentlemanly, old world professional,” Niven says. “In publishing people are very reasonable compared to the music business where it’s more my way or the high way.” 

Niven isn’t the only writer of this opinion. Ben Aaronovitch, author of Sci-Fi comedy Rivers of London, is a former television writer who, among other things, has written two Doctor Who episodes. And he has got a similar idea of the business he now operates in.

“Compared to television, publishing is full of civilised human beings – It’s a joy,” Aaronovitch says. “In television you just assume that they’re all going to try and kill you; you assume they’re going to stab you in the back. If it comes to a choice, there’s nothing some won’t do and you just operate accordingly.”

As with music, the television industry is a male dominated world and a similarly brutal place for business. When Aaronovitch went into contract negotiations, he did so with the assumption that he would get “screwed over”, and that the counterpart will “go in and give you the worst offer they can”.

“It’s not malicious, that’s just the way it works,” Aaronovitch says. “The automatic first reaction is that they’re giving you nothing. And they expect you to go, ‘oh, no! This is all rubbish’. It’s like that haggle scene from Life of Brian, they just want you to haggle. In the publishing industry the first offer is often more likely to be reasonable.”

The general consensus is that with a demanding audience that’s often focused on one genre – as well as piracy taking away big chunks of the profit – the people working in the business must be ruthless. In literature, the margins of error are slightly wider, meaning publishers, agents and booksellers can act more civilised whilst producing far more new titles each yeas than the record industry produces albums.

But there are signs that the climate within publishing is changing. UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) latest published statistics shows that the number of book titles published in the UK per year has gone up from 107,000 in 1996 to 172,000 in 2005, a figure that grows larger each year and is now believed to have passed 200,000. This in comparison to album releases – which are impossible to specify in numbers because of digital and independent releases – but is thought to be in the low thousands.

Since the mid-nineties, the state of the publishing industry has evolved massively alongside the increasing number of books produced, and it has had to become more professional. This is due to various factors, all of which derive from the abolishing of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) in 1997. Written in 1899, the NBA was introduced in order for publishers to set the retail price on books and refuse booksellers to give discounts. For almost a hundred years this worked in the interest of the publishers, the retailers and indeed the public, as it allowed for important authors to be given support and it kept a fair market.

In the 1990s, however, free trade was blossoming and Terry Maher, then head of Dillons bookstores (bought by HMV in 1995), fought to have the NBA scrapped. And in 1995 his efforts were rewarded as many publishers and sellers started ignoring the agreement. Two years later the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) declared the agreement illegal, with the motivation that it was now against the public interest.

The decision changed the entire nature of book selling. The chain from author to reader, with the agent, the publisher and the bookseller as the links from pen and paper to the customer, “broke down to an extent between the publisher and seller”, says Andrew Kidd. Booksellers started using discounting and competitive pricing came into play. It meant that a new element entered the frame with super markets starting to sell literature, and coincidentally Amazon and online bookselling was a growing market as well.

“So what traditionally had been a very collaborative relationship between bookseller and publishers where they could work together to find successful books, because books still relies so much on word of mouth and hands-on selling, was to some amount abandoned. Instead there was a concentration on high volume sales of a more limited number of titles,” Andrew Kidd says.

As a result of more players entering the game, the publishing industry has had to “grow up very, very quickly”, and take a position where serious business must come first.

“Years back when I started in publishing you could go out for a four hour lunch, people took taxis across London,” Stuart Evers says. “When going through files you would see that authors were getting cases of champagne on the day of publication. These things just wouldn’t happen now, and the kind of people that would rather swing in at ten o’clock and leave at five are gone.

“Everyone has to work incredibly hard to make sure that what they’re putting out is the best that they can, but also that they actually sell.”

The music industry has evolved in a similar way, but the climate is just as rough as it’s always been. At the turn of the millennium, record labels streamlined their corporations by outsourcing parts of the business they used to do in house.

The rivalry that was once label-centred, now branched out along with, for example, PR departments shutting down and becoming external. Such services, which labels earlier invested vast amounts of money in, were now provided by outside companies, often being commissioned with parts of the artist’s own earnings.

Whilst this saved money for the labels, it only meant that the problem shifted to another part of the industry. Publicists who left the record companies brought many of their acts with them and instead there are now so many independent, national companies doing promotions for musicians, that there’s not enough room for them all.

“The competition is really, really quite fierce,” says Warren Higgins of PR company Chuff Media. “You’ll find that quite a lot of the independent agencies will have one or two main artists, and all the rest of them will be young development acts or just acts you haven’t really heard of before.”

What follows is a situation where an increasing market is trying to get publicity in a shrinking amount of space. “Radio 1, for example, do about two or three ads a month to get on their playlist. And on top of that you’ve got about, 700-800 records being plugged to them that month. So that’s a lot of people not getting on the radio,” Higgins says.

 “And it’s the same with TV as well. There are no real music shows anymore since Top of the Pops has gone, so that’s why you’ll now find that a lot of the talk shows, afternoon programmes, and even the Andrew Marr Show on a Sunday, will have a music act because they’re trying to find somewhere to put an artists onto to give them exposure.
“There are no avenues for them anymore in mainstream media, on television and with press, and this means that people will stop at nothing to get ahead of others. People won’t trust you and you shouldn’t trust them. It happens that someone you’ve worked really close to simply steps in right in front of you and leave you behind, and then you lose,” Higgins says.

John Niven’s fictional alter ego, Steven Stelfox, is that person incarnated. And even though he isn’t real, he’s based on a person who’s seen and experienced it from within. But when it comes to the publishing industry, the most foul play Niven has experienced is jealousy and hostility between writers, something Stuart Evers concurs with.

“There is jealousy there,” he admits. “A lot of it stems from the often quite right thought that your books are better than those doing incredible business. Everyone aren’t going to have a grudge towards the best seller who wins lots of awards, but they might resent someone who perhaps isn’t a master of the form getting huge advances for books that aren’t massively dissimilar to the books that you’re writing.

“The music industry will be exactly the same. If you’re playing the Toilet Circuit in London and watching Razorlight get paid a million dollars for their latest record, you go, ‘what have they got that we haven’t?’. I think that goes across the board.

“For the most part, though, authors are very supportive of one another, because ultimately most writers are readers. They have their taste and their preferences, and they want to make sure that other people are reading the books and writers that they love too,” Evers says.

In an equation where every part is dependent on the next, publishing can pride itself on being an industry for people with respect and understanding of each other’s work. That being said, it is a business that’s constantly developing, and therefore we will have to have faith in that the gentlemanlike women dominating it can keep all gentlemen being… gentlemen.

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