Oh to be a gentleman publisher!

Eoin Purcell

I often hear references to Gentlemen Publishers
And I wonder what exactly is meant. Is it an implication that companies were badly run by people with little head for business, or that the publishers were male and generally wealthy (either as a product of their labours or independently one way or the other casting doubt on the first question) or perhaps that the culture was more convivial and friendly? It is a type of publishing hard to define and this article written in 1995 on the occasion of MacMillan’s sale to Holtzbrinck hardly makes it any clearer what people have in mind.

Just what is a Gentleman Publisher do you think?
I suppose most people are thinking of the likes of Hamish Hamilton, Victor Gollancz, Allen Lane, maybe even one of the John Murrays.

Sometimes I wonder
If what people really mean is that they would like a huge pile of money and could publish what they like with little or no regard for readers, the market and the sales force and retailers. Which is all very well to some extent but it does make you wonder why?

Part of the reason I love publishing is because it enables you to spread good writing and interesting thinking. It is part of your job to figure out the way to package an idea so that it sells and reaches the right minds and the right eyes and influences the right decision makers. Having a pile of money removes the imperative to get that right, lessens your drive to sell books and reach those people, doesn’t seem like a good way to operate to me.

It also occurs to me that we have a somewhat confused view of the past

A quick read of this article written on paperbacks on this site (which has a number if very good articles on the history of paperback publishing) suggests that the business has been difficult and often driven even 60 or 70 years ago:

In 1931, a young German enterperner, Kurt Enoch, thinking he could bring the books to a larger market, established Albatross Books with a branch office in London. (The name was chosen because the word “albatross” is common to most European languages.) The books he issued had clean pictureless paper covers in a tall, narrow 7 1/8″ x 4 1/4″ format, a look Enoch considered “dignified”. His success— almost immediate as he aggressively promoted the Albatross logo—allowed him to buy-out Tachnitz. As quickly as it came, success vanished when the rising Nazi powers seized control of his presses and shut him down.

The President of Blue Ribbon, Robert Fair deGraff, realized he had to lower the 50 cent price of his reprints. With a goal of a twenty-five book that would capture enough of the market from competitors to turn a profit, he named his experiment Triangle Books, horribly cheap hardbacks printed on course pulp paper. He managed to get the price down to 38 cents each before stalling.

I humbly suggest that the idea of Gentleman Publishing is something of a myth. Business is business and though family businesses may seem anachronistic to us in 2008, in fact they have proved remarkably resilient and adaptive organizations through centuries of change. Publishing may be going through a phase when conglomerates seem to dominate, a closer look might reveal something a little more complicated [Holtzbrinck is a family firm and Hachette is owned by Lagardère Publishing which is still run by a family.

To my mind the truth is that we underestimate the difficulty of publishing in the past because we see only the successes and are blind to the failures. We therefore tend to see the results and not the sweat and tears. A pile of money might as often lead to a smaller pile of money and no success as it might success and a bigger one!

Now for some rest,

Max McGuiness on Irish Online Media

Eoin Purcell

Great piece (whatever your view) by Max McGuinesson Irish Online media over at The Dubliner Blog:

No matter how much we enjoy the smell and feel of a freshly-printed broadsheet, there is no going back; the internet genie cannot be put back in its bottle. The web has demystified journalism while mystifying editors and publishers, whose panicked response is to spout shallow technophilia and replace experienced hacks with semi-literate bloggers. It is time for the industry to stand up to the internet’s most degrading tendencies and reassert that it’s writing, not typing, which sells newspapers – erm, I mean flashing banner ads and video streams from BMW.

Well worth reading.

Lots of book initiatives today

Eoin Purcell

Random House selling books by chapter according to the Wall Street Journal: (Gated and unlikely to change)

Random House will post “Made to Stick,” written by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, at http://www.randomhouse.com/madetostick. Customers will receive a digital link via email enabling them to download the chapter onto their computers. Random House expects that eventually users will be able to download chapters onto other devices, such as BlackBerries.

And Harper are giving the away for free

Starting Monday, readers who log on to http://www.harpercollins.com will be able to see the entire contents of “The Witch of Portobello” by Coelho; “Mission: Cook! My Life, My Recipes and Making the Impossible Easy” by Irvine; “I Dream in Blue: Life, Death and the New York Giants” by Roger Director; “The Undecided Voter’s Guide to the Next President: Who the Candidates Are, Where They Come from and How You Can Choose” by Mark Halperin; and “Warriors: Into the Wild” the first volume in a children’s series by Erin Hunter.

I wonder who’ll win this round?*

*Hint, it might well be the free one!