Thursday, September 20, 2007

I thought I would ruminate today about what makes a publishing house survive.

I wasn’t involved in this publishing house until Marion Boyars, my mother, grew ill in 1999, and needed someone to continue the house beyond her death. I had enjoyed a lifetime (well, forty odd years of it) watching her create her house, from the sidelines. The result was a very individual, and often amazingly literary and prestigious, collection of books by the time she passed away. It was worth working hard to keep it going, and I’ll be honest, to remember her by.

But there was also the small question of the debt she left, and which she had worried over, lived with and managed for many years. Making money was not something she paid much attention to. She hoped to sell mass market rights to the large houses, and put right the debt incurred from publishing in hardback. She never did any mass market publishing herself – she thought it was too difficult for a small house to do. And then less than two years after her death, our UK distributor went belly up, and we lost a further £33,000. This was the first of many bankruptcies I have seen in publishing, although it is the one we have suffered from the most.

This is where I thought differently to her. Coming from design consultancies, where very small groups of designers managed the new identity of huge companies (Debenhams, Eurotunnel, Terminal Four, The Co-operative Retail Group, to name just a few) I thought we could do the same in publishing. After all, the large houses are made up of imprints which often have just a few people working in them.

But what about the knowledge that all publishing houses and book related businesses seem to exist on a shoe string (some of them are large shoe-strings, but even huge chains of bookshops seem to dice with debt annually) and a constantly altering cash flow? How do you plan for the future?

Most houses are led by their front list. We have a back list to cushion the blows, but our major successes in the past five, thankfully profitable years (it took over four to get rid of that huge debt), are front list choices. So how do you make those choices?

Well, the healthiest way to go about it, when you find a book you like, it to play devil’s advocate. Rather than thinking, I love this book, the author is funny and nice, the writing superb, how could we possibly go wrong, I think, what could go wrong? Is there a possibility the critics could be snide? Are there books like it on the market? Does the author have too high expectations/livein Darkest Peru/do I know he/she is a recluse who will not turn up at book readings or talk to the press (this is the case more often than you may think)? Will people think we are clever clogs for deciding to publish a very funny book about a suicide shop or an imaginary city which resembles New York but is in fact a reconstruction in a desert (yes, two actual books I considered today which I would have liked to do but which I thought would fall foul of critics comments, sadly).

And why is the publishing business full of so many lovely people who you meet but wonder how they manage to stay afloat? It’s like the dream life, but because of it, there are a lot of books, and lots of people publishing and trying to make a noise about their projects and thus it is really, really hard to have a company which keeps on a financial level footing. I should know, since I watched my mother struggle from the age of three and I am always, always trying to work out a way to be still sailing six months from now.

Posted by Catheryn


Joseph Devon said...

Interesting inside look. On the one hand I'm always impressed that the world creates enough people such as yourself so that undertakings like this keep being undertooken (that sounded oh so much better in my head). On the other hand I find myself wondering what the constant need to play Devil's Advocate might do to you as a reader. Could your love of books have kept you in a profession that may eventually strip away your love of books? (okay, clearly it's Monday and I shouldn't be posting)

Catheryn Kilgarriff said...

The main feeling I have is a quiet sadness that some of the fiction we have published has not found more readers - Chinese Take Out by Arthur Nersesian, for example. The difficulties in publishing a book like this may stop us from publishing others that are wacky and fun. But stop liking books - no way! Even if I can't publish something for fear of penury, I can enjoy it as a submission. That's a privilege the market cannot take away. And I borrow a lot of books from the library, and buy multiple books to take on holiday.