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2011-12, 371, 372, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Publishers

Book Reviews

Book Makers: British publishing in the twentieth century by Iain Stevenson  The British Library 336 pp. $59.95

Max Reinhardt: A life in publishing by Judith Adamson  Palgrave Macmillan 220 pp. $95

ACCORDING TO A PUBLISHER MEMO, Book Makers ‘reveals a fascinating tale of creative genius, individual endeavour, personal idiosyncrasy, occasional duplicity, bad behaviour and far-sighted vision’. British book publishing in the twentieth century, because of or in spite of these traits, was a huge commercial and cultural success. What will happen, however, in the twenty-first century’s global digital arena, is still a work in progress, although in 2009 British publishers still sold just over 763 million books.

Iain Stevenson, Professor of Publishing at University College, London, largely conducted his research through publishing house histories and interviews. Book Makers is, however, no dry, academic history as Stevenson focuses on the impact of key individuals, such as Allen Lane, Stanley Unwin, Paul Hamlyn and Robert Maxwell, ‘fascinating, interesting, occasionally horrifying and astounding’ individuals.

Maxwell, ‘one of the most brilliant and most villainous characters ever to grace and disgrace British publishing’, was one of several key figures, like Andre Deutsch, George Weidenfeld and Max Reinhardt, to come from outside the UK and have a major effect on British publishing. While Allen Lane created the Penguin paperback revolution in the 1930s, Paul Hamlyn rose to fame in the 1950s through cheaper and improved hardback publishing, especially with coffee table books for the ‘never had it so good’ generation.

When the UK Net Book Agreement was abandoned in 1996, the floodgates opened on even cheaper book pricing and thus publisher behaviour. While chain bookshops originally prospered, Stevenson reveals, in his concluding chapter, that the seeds of the current crisis were present. The British book scene now has Internet providers like Amazon with discounts and free postage but also sees increasing sales – up to 20% of all book sales – occurring through supermarkets such as Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s.

While such supermarket sales levels are not being replicated in Australia, there is no doubt that the British based Book Depository is having a significant impact on Australian bookshop sales, because of its free postage from Britain to Australia. Book trade professionals say they are somewhat bemused as to how the economics of the Book Depository global free postage works, but it proves that consumers in a global society will source the product wherever it is cheapest. Global copyright issues will surely be addressed next.

The former Borders UK Chairman, Luke Johnson, recently proclaimed that High Street bookshops are finished in Britain saying: ‘I bought Borders thinking we could turn it around. I believed wrongly we could reverse the turndown in High Street book sales. It’s a great sadness that we couldn’t’. In the same UK Bookseller article, a number of publishers observed that the ‘one-size-fits-all bookstore doesn’t have a future’, which leaves the way open for niche independent bookstores to prosper.

Academic publishing is also at the crossroads with library book budget cutbacks, pressures on traditional university presses and an unwillingness to embrace new digital models. Stevenson documents the revitalisation of Oxford University Press to its present dominant global academic position, after what Dan Devin called the ‘penitential navel-gazing, hair-shirt, apologetic, prostrate defeatism that was rife in Oxford at the end of the 1960s’.

Professor John Sutherland has written: ‘There are, as every wide-awake academic knows, presses with acceptance hurdles so low that a scholarly mole could get over them. They edit minimally, publish no more than the predictable minimum library sale (200 or so) and make their money from volume. They repay their authors neither in money nor prestige. They put out a few good books; and a lot of the other kind. The best imprints (Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, for example) set the bar deterringly high. A scholarly kangaroo will have trouble clearing their hurdle’.

Palgrave Macmillan set the bar high in their hardback prices, aiming to capitalise on library sales, as evidenced in Max Reinhardt: A Life in Publishing. Reinhardt was another figure who almost single-handedly carved out a publishing empire after the Second World War. Stevenson says that, like Jonathan Cape, ‘he cultivated the persona of a dilettante boulevardier of high literary sensibility’, but beneath that facade was a ‘steely professional publisher’.

Judith Adamson’s sympathetic biography, primarily based on papers in Reinhardt’s private archive, is a comprehensive account of Reinhardt’s achievements and colourful life. Reinhardt, born in Constantinople in 1915, had early experiences which would not have been out of place in a Graham Greene novel before becoming a naturalised British subject in 1946 and adopting a decidedly English persona. He became owner of The Bodley Head from 1957 to 1987, as well as smaller publishers such as The Nonesuch Press.

Graham Greene, was a close friend and shrewd fellow director at Bodley Head. Adamson recounts how they would plan book jackets, publication details and limited edition sales over sausages and a bottle of wine at Reinhardt’s home. Bodley Head prospered publishing authors as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, Georgette Heyer, Charles Chaplin, Maurice Sendak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Judy Taylor was encouraged, if not always lavishly remunerated, to establish The Bodley Head children’s list.

In 1987, its centenary year, The Bodley Head was acquired, along with its partners, by Random House. Reinhardt resigned. Adamson describes in detail the tensions and sorrow as Reinhardt felt ‘the fun and conviviality leach out of the business he loved’. Reinhardt died on 19 November 2002, aged 86. At the 2003 Garrick Club celebration of his life, his wife recalled ‘the happy times of publishing, when one’s word was worth more than a written commitment’. Reinhardt was increasingly out of step in a bottom-line publishing world where self help books, paranormal romances and ghost written celebrity biographies flourish.

And book makers face which future? Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Kindle, said recently: ‘Even while our hardcover sales continue to grow, the Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format. Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books – astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months’.

Note

Both books contain a surprising number of misprints which is perhaps a reflection on contemporary publishing standards and structures – more marketing people than copy editors? It’s a pity, particularly in Stevenson’s case, as Book Makers is otherwise so well written, produced and priced.

Colin Steele

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