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, goatee-bearded 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