A gonzo voyage through the ferocious realm of predatory ‘hybrid’ publishers and their mutant product. (Part One, here.)
At one point around December, about a month after I had moved to the tiny office run by this black-hearted publishing concern, I had gone for one of my lengthy walks around the pier around midday when I got a call from the Cambridge office to say that the CEO of the House had turned up unexpectedly at the office in London and wanted to know why I wasn’t there. I made an excuse and made haste back to my post. Once I arrived back up on the top floor, I was accosted by a tall, young Indian man dressed in an outrageous polyester suit that was so shiny I could see my face in it, iridescent gold trainers, and was wearing shades that shielded his eyes (even indoors and in December. he delivered me a package to send direct to the office in Pakistan, and once it was safely in my possession, he sat me down behind my own desk and began to declaim in the classical fashion on his ingredients for success.
“You see my gold trainers?” he all but barked at me.
“Yes,” I replied.
“You see this suit?”
“You know how many companies I own?”
“I’ve lost count, man.”
“ – ”
“It’s not important. What’s important is – never give up.”
“You can’t ever give up. Never. If I had given up when I founded my first company at eighteen, I wouldn’t be driving a ‘Rarri now.”
“I can see that.”
“It’s not important. The point is – never give up. Even if the job gets impossible. Just keep going.”
“Anyway – you’ve got the package. Send it. I’m just in the next tower over, so I’ll be popping in over the next few weeks to see how you’re doing. I’ll see you soon. You’ve got the package.” He sniffed.
“See you –” I started to say, but he was already gone, stalking down the hall towards the lifts. I didn’t see him again for four months.
It was evident that the entire outfit had been orchestrated from the outset by someone who didn’t give a single shit about helping struggling artistes find a voice, or providing the world with the next Hemingway – or anything other than cramming the front-loading boot of a ‘Rarri with ill-gotten pension cash. Following my meeting with the CEO came a long period where I simply ceased to care myself. When you are a junior in any department, and you are placed to perform a job in isolation in a position where no one in any power over you either knows or cares how much you do – and where any work that you do with be completely ineffectual or insufficient anyway – it does not do wonders for the motivation. I suppose I resented being placed in a position where I was forced to receive to every piece of published material, act as if it were Ulysses and try and convince others of the same. I have never known longer days than those I spent in a tiny office with no co-workers, staring into space and trying to muster the minimal enthusiasm required to pitch thirty different books to every branch of WHSmiths in Woking.
Possibly the only upside to this ordeal was the privilege of monitoring the in-house editorial inbox, which would steadily fill throughout the day with submissions from authors all across the world with varying commands of English. I had heard tales of the ‘slush piles’ of mythic proportions mounting on the desks of so many publishing houses and literary agents, but nothing prepared me for the experience of actually being given access to it. I think I had initially taken this as a kind of daunting visualisation of the odds stacked against a pure and ardent artistic voice in the current climate, but I was simply unprepared for how bad most submitted manuscripts are.
I promise I’m not being an asshole – I just think that observation bias has treated people to relatively high expectations for the capabilities of the written word – what’s the job of the slush-pile-diver, after all, other than to filter out the chaff? – but with myself having come fresh from an English degree, I think I must have had an even higher conception of literature, having studied only the most revolutionary and erudite of novels and poetry through the filter of history. Even published works that were well-written, entertaining and popular at the time – but not necessarily brilliant or world-changing – tend mostly to be forgotten now. I imagine Jo Nesbo or EL James will probably mean as much to people in 2100 as Zane Grey or Edgar Rice Burroughs do now. But as for the work that is being written unwitnessed by all the masses toiling in quiet obscurity, the mute, inglorious Miltons lying unrecognised across the world – that is another order of magnitude of mediocrity entirely.
The most common genres seemed to be children’s books and personal memoirs – the genres that would appear easiest to write and, conversely or perhaps consequently, the hardest to do well. Everyone thinks their lives are interesting, I suppose, and they are – just not to anyone else. I used to think it was an exaggeration when George Carlin said that more people write poetry than read it, but now I think it might almost be true of writing generally – or that it soon will be. The instinct to create goes beyond connecting with an audience, communication or reception – it is just feeding the human need to be expressive and structure abstract thought into something that seems sensible and justified. I think it is rather wonderful living in an age where widespread literacy, education, the internet and word processors have enabled so many people to translate their creative instincts straight into real prose – but I was also reminded of Truman Capote’s sniffy axiom that there is a difference between writing and typing.
Our era might have given banality a radiance that is hitherto unprecedented. Banality isn’t necessarily more common or pronounced now – but more visible, louder and more important. There were thousands and thousands of pages in the House vault with dozens of manuscript submissions on each page, each one unexceptional, unequivocal and utterly authentic. With so much creative writing at one’s instant disposal (literally speaking), venturing into the great slush pile could be a little like dipping in society’s collective subconscious to view just how much misery we might all have in common. You start to see all the major arcana of angry solitude – the sexually-confused girl who was bullied in secondary school; the lifelong accountant dying for his friends to see his sensitive side; the middle-aged woman with time on her hands and a mysterious ennui – typified over and over, whether subconsciously or through self-reference, in the characters and situations of their manuscripts. All that writing was a kind of natural secretion of lonesomeness and time, like a great psychic scream from hundreds and thousands of individuals all crying out at once.
‘I’M SAD,’ they all seemed to say.
‘So am I,’ I wanted to say. ‘So is everyone.’
To be strictly fair, the House giving fruition to works that would otherwise never have seen publication – but, emotional grievance aside, I did wonder whether this was overall a positive thing. Individually, every person’s work deserved to achieve fruition, but for the effort and care that went into every single book, they deserved much more than that. They deserved more than being churned out, crowded onto Amazon and e-book shelves and forced so far down the throats of reputable store managers so far that they and all other House books became blacklisted from the industry. Everyone deserves more than that. I had so many clients constantly filling my inbox that approximately 80% of my working day consisted of telling people why I wasn’t getting anything done, leaving an hour or two to actually do everything I was actually supposed to in the working day. Generally, if they called the office, we would pass them from staff member to staff member until they eventually tired and gave up the hunt. The House stressed that we needed to answer emails, as it was a much more time-effective way of staving off lawsuits than actually looking for palpable success. By necessity, I had to work on the authors who gave me the most grief – the ones who would send me long email chains demanding widespread and immediate acclaim, or who called me up every day to chat for long periods about nothing in particular.
My favourite authors were the ones I never heard from, and although I did develop some relationships with some extraordinarily kind and good-natured authors, there were others of almost unbelievable rudeness and delusion. These were people emotionally invested in their product, who had been lied to and jerked around and then set on us to explain why Sean Penn was outselling them by a million units, so in my heart of hearts, I could hardly blame them.
Part of me felt sorry for the House’s authors for being sold something when they had no conception of what they were getting – but, then again, if I had learned one thing marketing such works to the general public, you can’t sell something that no one wants to buy. Something made them give up their hard-earned dough with no guarantee that they would ever see it again, on the basis of something that they alone believed in. It takes a certain cognitive dissonance to hear that around 250,000 books are published every year in the UK (a figure that I suspect is very much swollen by the output of the House and others like it) and yet to believe with absolute certainty that yours is the one of the impossibly few to become an instant smash hit in an age when most people would rather be watching Strictly Come Dancing or be scrolling through Instagram. We were running a lottery of sorts – every buyer had to believe that they were the exception, and this belief in themselves was just the quality that we were waiting to exploit. Once they had realised they had lost, we were the ones opened to their rage.
The impossibility of the task that had been set for us was reflected in the speedy turnover of staff. After three months, I was the second-most senior person in the entire department, since everyone else gradually quit or were unceremoniously fired for having suggested feasible improvements to the management structure or a raise on their pittance salary. I came back to the Cambridge office after two months of solitary confinement in London with a list of critiques with which to present the Editor, only to find that she had quit a few weeks before after a stress-induced manic episode while driving home, and there was no immediate management for the present. No one had told me – but then no one told me anything. I was in a tiny bubble filled with nothing but the echoing, misdirected rage of hundreds of aggrieved writers. No wonder she’d quit, I thought.
Even if I had moved heaven and earth to get a single writer one spot in a newspaper, it would not be enough – not for the others, not even for the one author I had helped. For a while I rather gave up doing anything other than replying to emails – a vast task in and of itself, of course. I began to see it as the best thing I could do for the industry as a whole, since I was acutely aware that I was contributing to the very dilution and disposability that was ruining the industry to which I so wanted to belong, and to the hateful marketing spam that is the bane of every human in the 21st Century, and rather hated myself for intervening in the running of honest businesses across the globe. During my meetings with authors, I became increasingly ambivalent in my responses as to whether I thought signing on was such a good idea; I was prevented from actively persuading them not to, as word would probably have gotten back to the Cambridge office. I ceased to pursue my tasks with any great alacrity or care.
I suppose it isn’t surprising that no employee could maintain themselves for long under such circumstances and, inevitably, my turn came. Part-way through a week around six months after being hired, my new manager called me to say that they needed me in Cambridge to help power through the absurd number of authors who were slated for release at the end of April. I was told to bring my key and swipe card for the office, since they were at last upgrading me to a larger suite with windows. After two days of backbreaking Excel work and having handed over my key, I was called in to see the manager to be told I was no longer required and sent back to the city that hour. When I tried to collect the personal belongings I had brought from home to remind me of my childhood and traveling years to brighten up the lonely London office, I was denied entry and my property were forfeit to the House.
I had wanted a job in the modern publishing scene, and this was it. This was what the book industry consists of, more than Booker Prize ceremonies or six-figure movie deals. This is what market forces and the caution of the large publishing houses have reduced one of the world’s great art forms to. If the next Ulysses were written today, it would languish in the inbox of an indifferent publisher – or, worse, be scooped up by a vanity press, gutted and abandoned. Very likely it will be; possibly it has already. It doesn’t matter if they don’t sell a single copy, it doesn’t matter that no one will read a single word of these authors’ work, it doesn’t matter if they are flooding a market with terrible product. This House always wins.
They had sold them the dream of being a successful author, printed on notarised paper and a small-print word of warning about market unpredictability to cover their ass. I would deeply like to believe that the wave of internet hate and general inefficiency will eventually do for the House and any such cruel and duplicitous industry – but the fact is that this kind of hybrid model is built on much firmer ground than the great traditional publishing houses, whose foundation on the shifting sands of the book market makes them ever more cautious and defeatist. Where McDonald’s makes its money from salt cravings, or Gordon Gekko makes it from greed, the House and its ilk make their money from the vanity and artistic ambition of the working person in selling them, however briefly, a dream of success. Fiction is sold – but it is a fiction that is sold to the author, rather than the reader. The ride goes round and round, and the park stays open, every month of every year. The line is growing past the gate.
But that is just the desperate idealist within me dying a painful death. Self-publishing is part of the problem of saturation, but maybe it is also the solution. Peripheral authors do not need the backing of a publisher in this day and age – certainly not one such as this – and are probably better off taking things into their own hands. No one will be as powerful an advocate for your work as yourself, and you should never trust your representation to someone who does not believe you can be a success. That’s the only way for certain to ensure that you never will be.
[You can find part one of this guest post here.]
Henry Coburn is a writer and reviewer living in London. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2016 and currently writes and blogs about contemporary literature and the publishing scene. His previous writing credits include three plays written for the ADC Theatre and Marlowe Society, journalism, radio and TV hosting. He currently writes reviews for books on the blog Page Burner and for film with Seventh Reel.