A Brief History of Meetings
21 Apr 2006
Paul Sidey is Editorial Director of Hutchinson. Before that he worked at Penguin. He has published a range of authors - from Borges, John Mortimer and Francois Truffaut to Ruth Rendell, Simon Raven and Antony Sher. He is also the author of two slim volumes of children's verse - THE DINOSAUR DINER and MY BROTHER IS AN ALIEN.
In the mid 70s at Penguin, we didn't go in much for meetings. Or for bits of paper which set out potential profit and loss. You liked a particular book or a particular author, thought of a number, talked to your Publishing Director, and told Sales and Marketing about the purchase some time later. It seemed to work all right.
Then things changed. Publishers went vertical. Celebrated backlist authors like Hemingway, Faulkner, Huxley, Woolf reverted to their original hardcover houses and were fed through into their own paperback outlets. Penguin had a fight on their hands.
A man from America was called in to take the company into a new dawn. At an Editors Only Acquisitions Meeting, he proclaimed: 'You have to be able to tell good schlock from bad.'
'There is no difference," I said. 'There is only schlock.'
The writing was on the wall.
An auction (a new and hideous phenomenon) was held for a 'hot' novel. I was one of the readers. 'You can't publish this,' I said. It had a sentence which ran: 'The train was rapidly in the process of turning itself into a holocaust.' We bought the book. In one of Penguin's many pogroms, I was given the black spot.
But I survived and found a job at Hutchinson. This was the company which had discovered Frederick Forsyth. But sold him for ready money to a rival paperback house. They had not yet learned the lesson that you had to hold on to your assets.
In spite of very successful authors like Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, P.G. Wodehouse, Robert Lacey, things were not going well. Millions were lost in Australia. Desperate remedies were invoked. Only the most urgent phone calls were to be made in the morning. A bright young packager joined the fray. At a Brainstorming Meeting, he came up with a revolutionary idea for creating new fiction. Take two rollerdexes. Fill one with authors' names - preferably not those of established novelists. Fill the other with plotlines. 'The rest is cornflakes,' he said.
Not long after, the 100-year-old company was sold to a fledgeling 3-year-old, run by a mandarin mastermind, who knew about reading, writing, arithmetic. And sales and marketing. He presided over the Acquisitions Meeting. And his word was law. I proposed a particular project. 'Frankly, Paul, that would be like publishing in Urdu upside down.' The Meeting chortled. I tried again another week with something else. 'Frankly, Paul,' he said, 'if you want to do books like that you will have to start your own Publishing Company.'
In the way of things, the new leader's reign came to an end, and another one began. Random is now a house of many mansions, including such venerable names as Chatto and Windus, Secker and Warburg, Jonathan Cape, and, of course, Hutchinson. The owner is the German media giant, Bertelsmann. Who also own Transworld. So Frederick Forsyth is back in the fold. There are meetings all over the place. Everyone can have their say. A computer system called Biblio embraces everything - from costings to cover briefs. Similarly, another computer system, called Bookscan, records the sales details of major titles. There is nowhere to hide. But new myths evolve. A head honcho at Waterstones declared that History was history and that reviews didn't mean a thing any more. He's not there any more either.
But someone has to believe that an old idea as well as a new idea can work. So editors and agents still have their uses. And there is a traditional trading ritual which works as successfully as it always did. It is called lunch. It is a sort of meeting. Minutes can be taken. But good memory serves as well.
However, there is a price to be paid for civilised pleasures. As a thrusting young agent said to me only the other week: 'You're paying, natch...Yum, yum.'