The American poet Louis Simpson worked in publishing for some years and wrote several fine poems on the subject. In one of those, he describes the cocksure look on the face of an eminent publisher when he signed up a cookery book that would sell a million copies, which ‘was also the look that had turned down/Cards of Identity and Go Tell It on the Mountain’.
Making mistakes in their choice of what to take on is one of the things that publishers do, and always have done. Despite all the research data now available, no one really knows which books will find many thousands of readers and which only a handful. I’d argue that the freedom to make mistakes constitutes the chief glory of the profession. It’s also what distinguishes the work of publishers from that of many other professionals – brain surgeons, for example, or nuclear scientists, or electricians. No one actually dies because a book doesn’t sell.
The downside is that for established publishers with shareholders, specialised staff and offices with water-coolers and sofas in the lobby, taking on books that bomb can result in the loss not just of reputation but also of jobs and livelihoods. They operate at a level where the financial risks are high. To reduce or insure against these risks, they have to spend money on market analysis and, especially, on the promotion of their initial investments, all of which raises the stakes still higher. The result, inevitably, is conservatism.
This is where – but you’ve seen this coming? – the smaller presses have the edge. I don’t mean to suggest anything as simplistic as big publisher equals bad, small press equals good. There are excellent big publishers that are brave and unpredictable in their choice of what books to publish, and they publish them well; there are small presses that publish bad books badly. But in a trade in which publishers of literary fiction (and poetry) are chasing a declining readership, having little money to invest and thus little to lose can actually be an advantage.
It was, I can only assume, fear of financial failure, of making a ‘mistake’, that led almost every established literary publisher in the land to turn down Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. Nine years after the book was first sent around, Galley Beggar Press, a tiny Norwich-based publisher with only one book in print, said yes, let’s run with this. In the year or so after publication, McBride’s book won the Goldsmiths Prize, Baileys Prize, Desmond Elliott Prize, Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, while making the shortlist for other prizes. To this, add sales in the tens of thousands and income from foreign rights to boot. On a lesser scale, it was also the fear of making a mistake that led established publishers to turn down a debut short-story collection and an oddball novel that my own small press, CB editions, published last year. The first went on to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (and this magazine’s Bad Sex Award), the second for the Goldsmiths Prize.
A problem here is the equation of ‘mistake’ with financial loss. The established publishers are locked into a system that measures success in terms of numbers of copies sold and income generated, with the corollary that books that sell poorly are accounted failures. This approach has been dominant for decades: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress was rejected by fifty-four publishers (despite individual editors praising it as ‘brilliant’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘twenty-five years ahead of its time’) before being published in 1988 by another small press, Dalkey Archive.
Because small presses have minimal overheads, few or no staff to pay wages to, and very little money to invest in the first place, they can largely bypass the mistake–financial failure equation. In the process, the whole concept of ‘mistake’ begins to evaporate. CB editions was started in 2007 with a legacy of £2,000 from a deceased uncle, which paid for the printing of 250 copies each of four titles and a one-page website. Since then, operating without any funding from the Arts Council, every first poetry collection I’ve published has won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. CB editions’ books have also won fiction and translation prizes. But more to the point is the book of poems by a 93-year-old poet that has sold around a hundred copies; or the book by an author I had said no to, and then two years later changed my mind about it, emailing him at 5am one morning to ask if he’d sent it elsewhere, and he hadn’t, so let’s do this, let’s sell another hundred copies; or the novel, by a professional violinist, that I loved, which scraped to sales of around 150. (A bestseller for me is a title that sells over a thousand copies; I can get by on far fewer.) I am as proud of the latter group of books as the prizewinners. None of them was a mistake.
I have to live, of course. Sometimes when I look glumly at a printout of sales figures, I feel I’m having a staring competition, waiting to see who blinks first. And I do make errors, silly ones (such as spelling an editor’s name wrong on the cover of a book). But the joy is this: that somehow, more by accident than design, I find myself in a position where, in deciding what to publish, I am free to make what others might call mistakes. This is publishing at its purest, and it’s directly equivalent to the freedom that any worthwhile writer should claim – the freedom to fail. Without that, there’s simply no point. Money can make things happen, but too often it just gets in the way.