p u l p i t j e r emy l e w i s

Any Advance?

Publishing was a frugal business when I started work in the Collins publicity department in the late 1960s. Most of the famous names were still independent, and penny-pinching was essential to the survival of small to medium-sized literary publishers. Booksellers were dusty-looking characters in worn-out cardigans and Pirelli slippers, who received at most a third off the published price; printers, binders and paper merchants were there to be beaten down; those of the staff who didn’t have private incomes were paid even less than prep-school masters or junior secretaries. A few lucky authors hit the jackpot with a bestseller or mined money-spinning seams of books about bridge or gardening, but most, unless they too had alternative means, were condemned to life in a garret on a diet of baked beans and tap water, plus an occasional glass of mild and bitter.

The great guru of those days was the parsimonious, goateebearded Sir Stanley Unwin of Allen & Unwin, whose much reprinted The Truth about Publishing was the bible of the trade. Unwin decreed that, in a sensible world, an author’s advance should consist of no more than 40 per cent of his anticipated royalties from the hardback edition, taking no account of the author’s share of paperback or subsidiary rights. In other words, if an author were to receive a 10 per cent royalty on a book costing £10, of which the publisher expected to sell 2,000 copies, he or she would be paid an advance of no more than £800, with extra royalties to come every six months if the book sold better than expected.

All this changed in the 1980s, when publishers came under siege from literary agents ready to play off one publisher against another and move once-loyal authors from their long-standing publishers to rivals with deeper pockets. Publishers forgot Sir Stanley’s wise words and began to pay advances that bore no relation to sales, let alone the earnings from subsidiary rights. In this they were egged on by their Jesuitical accountants, who told them that none of this mattered, since advances – like stock (that is, printed books) – were assets that could be written down every year and eventually written off, after which life could continue on its carefree way. Whenever I suggested that to pay £5,000 for a book which would only earn £2,000 in royalties in toto must leave a deficit of £3,000, I was told that I knew nothing about the economics of publishing. This was true enough, but none of it made sense to me.

Paying wildly extravagant advances coincided with the rise of the bookselling chains, who demanded far higher discounts than the men in cardigans had. In 1997 publishers idiotically agreed to abolish the long-standing Net Book Agreement: the door was opened for supermarkets to sell bestsellers for little more than the cost of production and British publishers found themselves far more vulnerable to the Amazonian invasion than their colleagues on the Continent, where some sort of resale price maintenance still prevailed.

This undermined the fragile ecology of ‘literary’ or ‘trade’ publishing, but ushered in a golden age for writers. Among those who benefited more than most were freelance writers of nonfiction who didn’t have the security of an academic post. The underrated Roy Fuller, who spent his life working for a building society, proved that writing novels can be combined with – and may benefit from – a conventional day job. However, researching a work of non-fiction is both time-consuming and expensive, particularly if one needs to visit American libraries, and it can’t easily be undertaken in the evenings or at weekends. Although the residual publisher in me deeply disapproved, I was more than happy to accept the new largesse on offer. For my first biography, I was paid an advance of £50,000 in 1992. Shortly after I’d signed the contract I bumped into Tom Rosenthal, then working uneasily in tandem with my one-time boss André Deutsch, the most celebrated penny-pincher of them all. ‘Do you mind my asking, dear boy, how much you’ve been paid for your book?’ he said. I didn’t mind in the least. He slapped his brow in a despairing gesture when he heard the amount and asked how much I thought Chatto – my last port of call as a publisher – might have paid for such a book. I hazarded a guess of £10,000, but when I last caught sight of my publisher’s six-monthly statements, I realised that even that would have been far too much.

Despite excellent reviews, publication as a trade paperback a year after the hardback and a large extract in one of the Sunday papers, my unearned balance was still some £44,000, so even an advance of £10,000 would have been far too high in Unwinian terms. Even if £10,000 per year over five years was hardly a fortune, without it I could never have written my book, let alone taken up a career as a biographer.

Over the last ten or fifteen years, publishers have begun to pay more ‘realistic’ advances, and for the book I have just completed I received a fifth of what I was paid over twenty years ago. The old publisher in me approved, and because I’m well past retirement age but still have a part-time job, my mortgage has been paid off and my daughters fled the nest long ago, I wasn’t as hard-pressed as I would have been in the past. But were I in my forties, with a mortgage to pay and young children demanding to be fed and clothed, I couldn’t contemplate writing books of the kind I write (for good or for bad). How will my equivalents survive in the future? Will such books be written only by academics or people with private incomes?

According to a survey published by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) last year, the average earnings of full-time writers in 2014 amounted to £11,000 a year, a drop of 29 per cent from the previous year – way below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard of £16,850, let alone the government’s minimum wage. Writers have the inestimable advantage of being their own bosses, and their penurious way of life is of their own choosing, but one quails at the thought of life in a garret on a diet of baked beans and water. r f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 5 | Literary Review 1