I was much taken with Robert McCrum's recent Observer piece lamenting the demise of the publisher's lunch. Mr McCrum suggested that the heart and soul of any publishing business is its editorial department and that, over the last 20 years, editorial freedom has become eroded. He's right of course. When we started talking to publishers 18 months ago about Preface, I was struck by how the CEOs and other governors of the big trade houses we spoke to were all agonising about how to reinvigorate that old editorial passion and spark. There is, I believe , a real determination in publishing management for editors to make decisions and to persuade their colleagues through commercial knowledge, force of will and enthusiasm. Of course, success helps no end in giving an editor autonomy.
I have a party piece which I trot out when propping up a bar. It's a variant of the Hollywood production meeting story. If you've heard it before, forgive me. (Barry Cryer insists his chums shout 'banana' if they have heard one of his stories before... feel free.) In its essence lies a real live publishing meeting at one of my previous employers. It goes like this.
Fifteen people around a table discussing acquisitions. Fifteen people: sales, marketing, rights, management and editors of various flavours. A publisher rolls out a silk kelim as good as any you could buy in the souk. Smiles all around.
'I love the colours,' suggests a rights person.
'The pattern is stunning,' comments a sales person.
'The cartouche to the left is quite the thing,' says a management person.
There's a pause. Then someone who knows nothing about carpets suggests that it looks a little on the used side. An equally ignorant character says he saw one similar sold the other week for not much money. Another doesn't like the small fraying on the far edge.
Half an hour later, this wonderful silk kelim is now a pile of threads in the middle of the table, and 'the management' suggests wearily. 'Do we really want to buy this?'
I am, like most editors, very protective of good ideas and good writing. That said, I'm really very happy when people who have expertise in, say, rights or marketing come to the table with appropriate comments. 'You are not going to sell this in foreign languages, so only offer for UK and Comm'; 'this will not get into the supermarkets in its first outing but if we concentrate on Waterstone's I think we can sell...'. Comments of this nature add to the quality of the commercial decision. It's when a sales manager says, 'I read it and I think you should get the author to change the main character from a man to a woman' that I find myself longing for the days when one could purchase with reference to no-one other than the waiter at your favourite watering hole. By the way, the man/woman thing? That did actually happen to me once. I suggested she go away.
Did we get better publishing decisions in years gone by when editors were at liberty to buy books over a convivial luncheon at the Ivy with no reference to anyone, let alone a P&L? Yes, sometimes, is the simple answer.
Mr McCrum is right. Publishing may indeed be sinking into the arena of the unwell. But rest assured as the world disappears and fire and brimstone rolls over the Wolseley, the River Cafe, J Sheekey and the Ivy, I and editorial colleagues all over London will be hunkered down tutting not over the demise of a wonderful industry but over the fact that hell is indeed paying for one's own whole baked sea bass on wilted leaves.
Trevor Dolby is Publisher of Preface