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,
Eoin

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4 comments

  1. I loved this and the last paragraph certainly lands square on with much of what I believe.
    Poor Albatross Books. You think you’ve got it bad? At least the Nazis aren’t all up in your business.

  2. Dear Eoin,
    this is a very belated reaction. Of course, the content of your text has no due date.
    I think I disagree with Joseph Devon. I really think you missed the point: “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!”
    For a gentleman publisher money was not the first interest, rather publishing something worth-while. But perhaps you have realised this in the meantime.
    Kind regards,
    Jan Antoon

    1. Jan,

      Best kind of comment, one that comes in when you have no attachment and can assess and respond fairly objectively! I think you are right that at the time I missed that distinction, though I wouldn’t now.

      I think perhaps I still think money making is more important but the niggling feeling that publishing good books is worthwhile loss or gain floats about my brain on occasion!

      Eoin

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