Inside a Publishing House

Mark Booth is Publishing Director of Century at Random House, a list that publishes John Grisham, Chris Ryan Karin Slaughter and, currently in non-fiction Angela Lambert's biography of Eva Braun, Bansky and Jordan. Here he sheds light on how a publishing house really operates.

Sometimes I hear people in publishing say, maybe a bit blandly, that any script that deserves to find a publisher will do so in the end. I say ‘blandly’ because I’ve been in the business for some twenty years and never seen any evidence to suggest this might be true. Whether or not your script is accepted will depend on factors unconnected with its quality.

Well-established publishing houses are always trying to cut back the number of titles on the list, and though more often than not they fail, it may be the case that when your script arrives the sales force is saying more insistently than usual ‘Please don’t take on any more! If we try to sell more titles, we will simply sell fewer of the titles we already have on the list’.

And these days sales departments have a big say. This is perhaps partly to do with the fact that publishers are booksellers’ bitches. Publishing bosses value very highly sales people who can pacify the chains and persuade them to modify their degrading and dehumanizing demands.

I think selling books to the trade must be bloody grim, but the sales people seem to be a cheerful, pragmatic bunch on the whole. They tend to be influenced by precedent. They are less likely to focus on what’s original in your script, more likely to focus on what makes it similar to previously published books. If your script is like a recent bestseller, this will make it much more likely to gladden their hearts.

But the key word here is ‘recent’. I reckon publishing genres last about seven years from first bestseller and including three or four years of decline. This means that if you want to ride the crest of a trend – for example the ‘misery’ market seeded by Dave Pelzer or the conspiracy-theory thrillers inspired by Dan Brown – it’s prudent to submit your proposal in the first couple of years following the book that started it all. Too late, then, to do a Pelzer or a Brown. Many major publishers are stuffed with them and already beginning to regret it.

This is just one way among many in which it’s hard to submit a script or proposal to the right publisher at the right time.

Not as hard as finding the right editor, though.

Being taken on by a star editor at one of the four or five corporations that buy up most of the promotional space in the chains…would be nice. The problem is that he – or more likely she, as women are better at publishing than men - will be offered most of the major proposals by most of the major agents, and so has a lot to choose from. Besides, she’s probably works on a mature list that doesn’t have many free slots over the next two or three years.

Senior editors’ working day is more like that of account executives in an advertising firms these days, more often doing noddies in meetings than heads down working on scripts, so it’s quite likely a senior editor will pass a script down to a more junior one.

Rising young editors can be hungrier, and also very effective, particularly if they are protégées of more established, more influential editors.

Some younger editors enjoy two or three glorious years of bestsellers, because their interests coincide with the zeitgeist, but then fall way because they try to repeat these successes when the spirit of the time has moved on.

Older, non-senior editors tend to survive either if they have a repeating author who makes money for the company or if they specialize in an area that no-one else much bothers with. Other unsung heroes plod on for years, making a steady contribution without attracting the attention of the corporate politicians…

Publishing houses are highly political organizations. The fact that far less money is at stake doesn’t make publishers any less cutthroat than, say, drugs dealers – quite the reverse. Editors are underpaid for their level of education and subversive by temperament, and although this is not as clear cut as it used to be, the different departments in publishing houses have tended to be staffed by different types of people with radically opposed outlooks. For example, editors used to regard sales people as not clever or well-read enough to be editors, whilst sales people regarded editors as effete and self indulgent ivory-tower dwellers. These disgraceful, old-fashioned attitudes still resurface, and if the sales department dislikes the editor to whom you have submitted your script, it is never going to get off the ground.

As in any organization there are alliances forged on gender, age, class, university background and sexual attraction. There are nerds, boffs, black-skirted sisters, chavs and other asbos, cheerleaders, les precieuses ridicules, suits (even among editors) and the Twits (‘tweed-jacketed w*****s’). Then there are cliques based on literary snobbery. Curiously, the biggest literary snobs tend not to be those with better degrees from the better universities or the more widely read members of staff. Perhaps being unencumbered by a study of the classics they are free-er to follow the winds of fashion?

The attractive and amusing people stick together in a publishing office as much as in the playground or the bar at the Sanderson, and many working alliances are forged on this basis. Our genial old sales director told me about a Frankfurt taxi driver who complained to him that he always has a lean time during the Frankfurt Book Fair. During the Automobile Fair, the Arms Dealing Fair, the Ball-Bearing Fair or whatever, he makes a lot of money taking car-loads of delegates to the red lights district. The publishers, he said, just seem to stay in their hotels and f***k each other. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I do know that when editor and agent sit down to lunch, it’s seldom very long before one of them says ‘What’s the gossip?’

Who’s in? Who’s out? There are always power struggles within publishing houses. If editors frequently survive over several decades, sinking into a delightful and sometimes boozy deliquescence, the same is less true of management teams. In the olden days, when big publishing houses like Collins were family run businesses out of which the family took nothing but salaries, there was no pressure to show year-after-year steady growth, which is what today’s corporations demand. The problem is that this is almost impossible to achieve in publishing. Unlike, say, the biscuit business, the product is very different year after year. Some publishers succeed but there are others where management teams tend to come and go. They expunge the old guard, have their supporters – but almost immediately there are shifting alliances looking ahead, sensing failure and manoeuvring themselves into position for the next coup.

How likely it is that the editor to whom you submit your script will be authorized to make an offer to publish depends where he or she stands in all of this.

How on earth are you to find out?

You can’t. Possibly. That’s the point of an agent.