From a 1980 BBC radio broadcast featuring Alistair Cook:
[A] story in the New York Times . . . brought back, as if it were last night, a cocktail party, ooh it must be 20, 25 years ago. It was a party given here for a visiting delegation of British book publishers, a party intended to start them off meeting their American opposite numbers.
I went there with an old wise American, one of those incomparable immigrant types who appear to have been born a Rabbi, a man who came here as a boy with two sisters and a mother in a shawl and who, 40 years later at the most, was at the very top of his profession as a public relations adviser, a roly-poly man with two chins and a mandarin moustache, he moved in every kind of society with unflappable ease.
He and I were standing off in a corner of this party when a bright young Englishman came up and the old PR man said, ‘Well, young man, are you enjoying yourself?’ ‘Oh, very much,’ said the Englishman but his brow crinkled and he said, ‘The only trouble is I simply don’t know where everybody belongs, among your people. I don’t know which of the Americans publishes poetry and which publishes pulp detective stories.’ ‘For instance?’ asked the old man.
‘Well,’ said the Englishman, ‘how about the group in that corner and the group in the other one?’ ‘My dear fella,’ said the old man, ‘it’s very simple. If you look over there at the man with the mutton-chop whiskers, the one who looks like the Emperor Franz Joseph, he is Alfred Knopf, he is a publisher. In the other corner, the man with the glasses and the pipe, he’s in the book business.’ It seemed, at the time, to be a cynical remark but a wise one.
For even then, bright young men on the make were going into publishing not because they were consumed with a passion for literature, but because they had ingenuous ideas about how to spot, in a new writer, the making of a thumping bestseller. The word ‘bestseller’ hasn’t been in the language very long. I should have guessed about 50 years, but the Oxford Dictionary just informs me it was coined or first appeared in print in 1912. Well, in the long, long history of the making of books that’s practically yesterday, but since the Second War, especially, bestseller lists have not only reported the books that a lot of people find most fascinating; the lists do more than report. Like many another form of advertising, they can actually create the appetite they’re pretending to take notice of.
Now this can lead to methods, tricks of marketing, which are far removed from the original desire to put out and advertise good books. For instance, there are two main forms of agreement between the publisher and the retailer. In the United States, a bookshop may order 200 copies of a new book but if it sells only 50, it can send back the other 150.
In some European countries, what the bookseller orders is what he has to keep and that makes for a much more accurate count, his count, of how well a book is selling. But, by the same token, it can also tempt a bookseller to report a better sale than he’s enjoying, in this way: the booksellers report to the newspapers that compile bestseller lists which books are doing particularly well. Now if you ordered 200 copies and are struggling to sell only 50, I should think there’s a very strong temptation to report that the book’s doing wonderfully well, in the hope it will get on to the bestseller lists and then you’ll get the sale you’d hoped for.
In the United States, the New York Times reports every Sunday the sales from something like, I think it’s 1200 bookshops and stores, what they call ‘retail outlets’. Because the retailer can return what he doesn’t sell, he’s under no obligation, no temptation, to fake the report of who’s doing well and who isn’t, but I’ve been told, on impeccable authority, that in Europe in some countries a book can hit the bestseller list because it’s not doing half so well as the publisher had hoped. The report that it is actually gives a fillip to the sales and, after a while, the hoped-for bestseller actually becomes one.
. . . .
The conglomerates saw the marketing of books as not business, but big business. And so, in the past dozen years or so, publishing houses have come to be owned by companies who were, in the first place, steel companies, say, and who had then taken over breweries and ball-bearing factories and Lord knows what else. Simpletons like me cannot shake the belief that if you buy a carton of orange juice, it’s grown and packaged and sold by a company whose main interest in life is orange groves.
. . . .
Well, the effect of all this has been to remove the author farther and farther away from the publisher as we use to define him, that is, a man whose main interest is literature and whose ambition is to promote the sale of better books over worse books.
The bookmaking process has gone even beyond this new relationship between the author and the beer baron who owns him by remote control. Any work of fiction stimulates in the movie and television companies the rosy prospect of a bonanza. So, whereas once upon a time, a simple time, literary agents used to wave the manuscripts of novels in front of the noses of movie moguls in the hope that they would like what they smelled.
By now this is a naive, almost a clumsy, procedure. Movie companies or businessmen with spare money don’t wait for the novel to be written. They pick out an author who once hit the jackpot and they go to him and suggest there might be one heck of a movie or a television special in a story about, say, a President of the United States who was seduced by a fashion model.
. . . .
The whole process is basically a financial contrivance – the marketing of a piece of fiction as if it were a dishwasher or a new car. Well, these stratagems are leaving the regular publishing houses in Britain as well as America in dire trouble and it has turned good, young writers, not to mention poets and historians and essayists into outcasts or anachronisms as quaint as minstrels or strolling actors.
Link to the rest at BBC and thanks to Dusk for the tip.