Kalighat painting, late 19th-century, of Ganesha, god of wisdom, auspicious beginnings, and success.
Market Activism: A Publisher’s Perspective
I am a market activist. I make no apology for that – though I may apologise for some of the unintended consequences of my activity. I’ve worked in publishing all my adult life and, for the past fifteen years or so, have managed independent publishing companies that have – to a greater or lesser extent – been engaged in the pursuit of trying to make a business out of literary activity.
In this respect, I think, I am perhaps an outsider at this symposium. In fact, I feel a little like Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street. And I can tell you that: ‘Market Activism is Good.’
So, I am not an artist, or a writer, or an academic. I am not even a publisher or an editor – at the cultured end of the commercial transaction that exists between the artist and the market – whose role is that of supporting and nurturing creative talent. The Guardian newspaper once described me as (I paraphrase from memory) ‘A sophisticated number-cruncher with literary nous’ – a comment I still regard as something of a compliment.
I am a businessman whose business has been making literary works sell, acting as something like a midwife to literary talent: getting great books talked about, read, appreciated, and widely known so that they might go on to influence and shape our contemporary cultural landscape. Part of that remit, of course, includes making money from those books – both for the artist and, just as importantly, for the businesses that produce them, so enabling those businesses to continue to publish books of cultural and commercial value. And so the cycle continues – or at least, that’s the idea.
Amit Chaudhuri’s mission statement, ‘On Literary Activism,’ sets the terms of this debate. He describes the rise of market activism from the mid-1990s onwards, a time in which a literary agenda that used to be set by the academy or by artists themselves fell under the control of the publisher and the agent. Much of what he says is true and, while in many respects I defend this change, as I note later, one of the unintended consequences of this ‘market activism’ has been a significant reduction in the influence of the expert professional – by which I mean someone seriously engaged in the craft of publishing literature. In this respect, then, I would like to challenge Chaudhuri’s terminology: what Amit describes as ‘market activism,’ I would prefer to call ‘publisher activism’ or, better still, ‘expert activism’. After all, the market activism he describes was in the hands of people like me and my colleagues: the agents from whom we bought the books, the critics who commanded the attention of the market, and the bookseller, the critical final point of contact who brought the book to the reader’s attention.
All the players in this chain were experts and their motivation, while not purely literary, was first and foremost their love of books, often deriving from a firm belief in the cultural capital held by books in modern society. Yes, revenue, status, and profits were important, but really no one but a fool would enter this industry in order just to make money – as the old joke goes: ‘How do you become a publishing millionaire? Start as a billionaire.’1 No, those who contributed to the chain of expertise were motivated by another, purer ambition: to bring the work of the originating artist to as wide a readership as possible. But things have changed. Today, I believe that our contemporary literary world is now truly – and almost exclusively – determined by market forces and we are all impoverished by this change.
When we look back, it is often hard to remember precisely how we felt at a given time. When I reflect now on that period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it strikes me that I never really considered whether the professional activity I was engaged in – what Amit calls ‘market activism’ – was new or, in adopted modern parlance, ‘disruptive’, but I know that I participated in it. I also know that – in comparison with the publishing industry as it exists today – that market activism was a positive force. Indeed, I would go further and say that, from the perspective of a professional publisher, in the early 2000s the market for interesting and challenging literature was about as good as you could hope for from what is, after all, a complex and imperfect collision between the worlds of art and commerce.2 The diversity of the marketplace, coupled with the market activism that served it, created a much more polyphonic book culture than the one we have today. Many different voices were discovered by readers through different market channels, while different champions across publishing, media, and retail helped to get those voices heard. For me, certainly, it was an exciting time and one that I still truly believe made a positive impact on capital, both cultural and commercial.
Between 2000 and 2006 I was managing director of Canongate Books and my business partner was Jamie Byng, arguably one of the great market activists of our times. Together, we published several great books, two of which will, I hope, serve as examples not only of the commercial power of market activism, but also of its cultural value.
Canongate, when I joined, was a loss-making, Edinburgh-based publisher that the literary world thought interesting but not important; a maverick upstart that promised more than it delivered. But we had growing literary capital: a reputation for introducing new talent and taking risks on unlikely or unproven writers – writers our bigger and more established competitors chose not to publish. We introduced authors of undeniable talent – Michel Faber and Anne Donovan, for example, both of whom were shortlisted for several awards. Nevertheless, it was quite clear that we were not at the centre of the literary world – this was (and remains) resolutely rooted in London. Indeed, we fought hard and endlessly to emerge from our Scottish ghetto. In addition, like every other small independent, we lived off the scraps left behind by our bigger, better-resourced, and more valued competitors.
About a year after I joined Canongate, an agent offered us a book that had been turned down by every one of those big, prestigious London publishers. They had looked at this book and decided it was not a novel they could invest in. They had good reason; after all, it was a narrative that took a long time to get going, had a middle phase that was pretty engaging, but crucially it had an ending I thought would leave many readers confused and dissatisfied. Furthermore, this was no debutant untainted by the cruel reality of a sales history. The author in question had previously been published not once, but twice by Faber and Faber, that peerless arbiter of literary taste, and both these books had been commercial failures. So, rationally and correctly, the big publishers passed on the new book. All except Faber, which, as if to affirm my earlier point about the motivation of people in publishing, ignored the stark reality of the author’s commercial track record and – to the house’s credit and for the record – made a generous off er. However, given the sales history of his previous books, the author was reluctant to accept, knowing that especially with this house it would be a near impossible task to revive his fortunes.
However, at Canongate we thought we knew better – arrogant young upstarts that we were and hungry for anything that approached really good literary writing. We loved the book, and while we couldn’t afford to outbid Faber and Faber, we matched their offer. Our enthusiasm – and the promise of highly geared market activism – won the day and we secured the contract.
Even if I say so myself, we delivered on our promise in spades. We worked with tireless energy and consummate skill to promote this book that we loved and thought important, pushing this failing writer’s third – and potentially last – work out into the world, employing all our skills in market activism to gain attention from critics, writers, and booksellers. Fabulous proofs were created and our retail and distribution partners were bombarded with copies and urged to read what we felt was a great book. Literary critics were targeted and sent copies with handwritten notes from the publisher imploring them to read the book and give it space in their publications. A carefully selected list of suitable writers and artists were also sent copies, part of what the publishers sometimes call a ‘Big Mouth list’ – people who will influence others with their opinions and who are not shy of sharing their views. I have somewhere an email (to which was attached the manuscript) dated a full year before publication to the sales director of Penguin Books, our distributor in Australia and New Zealand, urging her to read it, with the confident endorsement that ‘this book will win the Booker next year’. Now, this was a bold assertion of a kind I have used very sparingly in my career. Nonetheless, it reveals something about the level of our belief in the book. Penguin responded to our confidence with an initial order of 4,000 copies, a significant number for a book by an author with a questionable track record. Above any individual activity, Canongate applied a focus, energy, and enthusiasm that generated a tremendous buzz around the book ahead of publication in spring 2002.
So what was this book? It was Life of Pi by Yann Martel – and it did indeed go on to win the 2002 Man Booker prize. Even on the night of the ceremony, I had our printers poised to press ‘go’ on a pre-ordered 30,000-copy reprint should we win. Minutes after the announcement, I called them and the presses were rolling. This massive – for a company the size of Canongate – reprint was in the shops within three days of the prize ceremony, helping to ensure the momentum kept escalating. Indeed, at the time Life of Pi was the fastest-selling Booker winner ever. Since then, the book has gone on to sell many, many millions of copies in more than thirty languages around the world. In so doing, it changed the fortunes of Canongate and made Martel a celebrated and respected literary author. Most importantly, it was read and enjoyed by many, many people.
Now, I am sure there is a broad spectrum of opinion about that book among the readers of this essay – as there would be about any novel – but that doesn’t really matter. It is a serious piece of writing and deserved not just to be published but also to find an audience. While one cannot be certain, I am confident that without the full attention of Canongate’s extremely energetic market activism, this book, like Martel’s previous works, would most likely have sunk without trace. It’s an example of the kind of market activism Chaudhuri doesn’t mention; the kind that isn’t about the size of the advance, or the media-friendliness of the author, or confected advertising hype; it’s the kind of activism that tells a story about the story itself.
Moreover, the book also broke the cosy hegemony of the Booker Prize. In the ten years prior to 2002, the prize had been passed around between only six publishers – five of them international conglomerates that controlled about seventy per cent of the English-language fiction market. Canongate was the first independent, nonLondon based publisher to win. In so doing, it introduced a new voice to a global audience and announced the arrival of a publisher whose defining point of difference was a willingness to take risks on unheralded writers in the belief that a willing readership existed. And none of it would have happened without market activism.
Following this success, Canongate went on to use its enhanced position to bring new voices to the fore, voices that otherwise might never have been heard in the UK – Jen Christian Grøndahl’s beautiful, quiet, and deeply moving Silence in October, Nicollò Ammaniti’s gripping debut I’m Not Scared, and Steven Sherrill’s tender and moving The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, as well as many others.
Beyond Pi and those celebrated writers, a Canongate achievement that seems particularly pertinent to this discussion was with a book many readers of this essay may not know: Sylvia Smith’s Misadventures. It is a memoir of an entirely unremarkable life. The biographical note to the book reads as follows: Born in East London to working-class parents as the Second World War was drawing to a close, SYLVIA SMITH ducked out of a career in hairdressing at the last minute to begin a life of office work. She is unmarried with no children. A driving licence and a school swimming certificate are her only qualifications, although she is also quite good at dressmaking. Misadventures is her first book. She lives in London.
Like Life of Pi, Misadventures was a book that had been passed over by every one of our competitors. Again, at Canongate, we saw things a little differently. Where our competitors might have seen something dull and unremarkable, we saw a curious and powerfully moving memoir. And, like The Life of Pi , it was the power of market activism that brought Misadventures to a wide audience, selling about 30,000 copies in the UK.
Writing for the Daily Telegraph, Mick Brown described it in these terms: ‘What was banal becomes weirdly compelling – a life of utter normality (whatever that means) drawn in the way literature seldom, if ever, describes it: funny, poignant, tragic and, in the end, curiously hopeful.’3 In Misadventures Sylvia Smith somehow found her way to expressing the dilemma contained in the closing lines of Beckett’s The Unnameable – ‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’
On a personal level, I love this book and think it makes a real and original contribution to existential thinking. From a professional point of view, I love it because it was our ‘Pygmalion’ project. While the book is a testament to the indomitable strength of the human spirit, it has nothing that would make a publisher feel it could work commercially. It is a monotone account of unconnected events in an uneventful life, written by a woman with no literary profile or connected to any kind of group of influential literati. (Nor was the author an idiot savant, the kind of damaged outsider the literary establishment likes to adopt from time to time. As far as I could see, Smith wasn’t even particularly excited about being published. As a business, then, all we had was a text that we thought rare and good and our market-activist skills.)
What I hope I have described with these examples was how we employed market – or, as I prefer to call it, ‘expert’ – activism to bring new, fresh, and important voices to readers around the world and how, without that expert activist intervention, those voices would not have been heard.
Even as we achieved these successes, the commercial landscape continued to change. It became increasingly evident that applying our renowned marketactivism skills to bring forward unlikely artistic talent from outside the establishment would no longer be enough to maintain and grow a flourishing business. This was in part due to the company’s own publishing lifecycle, but the demands of the marketplace were also making it increasingly difficult to uphold not only our literary standards but also our bank balance. Our success had grown the business and inevitably increased our overheads, which placed additional demands on the revenue streams of the books that supported the business. As the retail market narrowed – and in the absence of the Net Book Agreement – the increasingly dominant big retailers demanded an ever-increasing share of revenue, putting pressure on our margins. In a period of less than ten years, an average trade publisher’s gross margins declined by nearly one-third, as a direct consequence of the escalation in trade discounts.4 Authors’ income from royalties was – and continues to be – similarly squeezed.
Traditionally, publishing reinvested the profits from its successes into new or yet-to-be-successful work, or into keeping faith with writers yet to deliver a commercially viable return on investment. There are many stories – mainly set in an increasingly distant past – of publishers keeping faith with authors who had yet to break out and make money. For example, Ian Rankin was not dropped by his publisher Anthony Cheetham despite disappointing sales on – as I understand it – his first six books. Today, cumulative sales of Rankin’s novels stand at well over twenty million copies.
So the slightly skewed economics of publishing have always advocated employing revenue from the hits to pay for losses on the misses. But when the profits from the books that do do sell are so depleted, the inevitable consequence is that the publisher becomes much more risk-averse and less adventurous. In such a context, the new, challenging (or just different) title becomes harder and harder to publish and therefore a much more rare commodity.
In the face of these changes, publishers had to adapt to the new market realities. At Canongate, we began to engage in producing some books for money and some books for love. Indeed, if you look at the business profiles of most literary houses now, you will find they have changed significantly from the days I have just described – and changed for reasons I understand very well and respect.
For my part, I tried another tack. I moved on to run Granta and Portobello Books, which had been acquired in 2006 by Swedish philanthropist and billionaire Sigrid Rausing. In my three years there, it would be fair to say that the quality of literary output was unimpeachable. Granta, the long-standing magazine of new writing, remained the journal of record – in the UK at least – for the short story and long-form non-fiction, while the two imprints published many great books: Robert MacFarlane’s seminal The Wild Places; Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, which won the Costa Award for biography in 2008; and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2010. We also acquired two books by an astonishingly young and amazingly gifted New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, whose debut The Rehearsal won many admirers and whose second, The Luminaries , won the 2013 Man Booker prize.
Despite these successes in terms of literary capital, other agenda came with the largely benign and well intentioned patronage of our wealthy owner: agendas that constrained and compromised the necessary market activism that would make Granta successful in terms of commerce. While that freedom may seem appealing to those sceptical about the pressing commercial demands of market activism, I can only tell you that I think the future of our culture is questionable if it must rely on the patronage of the very rich. Granted, that model seemed to work pretty well in Renaissance Italy, but from my experience it doesn’t seem to be a paradigm for publishing in the twenty-first century. Writers want readers for their work and that desire is better served if the publisher employs the full range of market activist strategies to help those works reach the widest possible audience.
As I experienced this shift of emphasis in ethos and business practices from Canongate to Granta, the market was becoming even harder for those trying to pursue the twin ambitions of literary excellence and financial success. On top of the increased pressures on margins and profits, which constrained publishers’ ambition and adventurousness, another factor was introduced: the internet. This, more than anything else, broke the chain of expertise that led from the author to the reader.
So, although Chaudhuri is correct to draw attention to the way in which the setting of the literary agenda has changed in the last two or three decades, it is this break in the chain of expertise that has had – and promises to continue having – the most significant and, I think, damaging effects on the place of the ‘literary’. I would go so far as to strongly suggest that art and culture should remain in – or somehow be returned to – the hands of expertly informed, seriously engaged, and culturally serious and committed individuals, rather than the world wide web.
While it might seem like an act of yearning for an irrecoverable past, it is worth briefly setting out the way in which things worked when the chain of expertise was intact. It was the agent or publisher who set the chain in motion, effectively becoming activists on behalf of manuscripts or authors that had caught their expert eye. In the first instance, they would do this by sharing their enthusiasms with colleagues in other departments – sales, marketing, publicity, and design – before moving out into the wider world of critics and commentators, many of them experts in their field, too, and, finally, booksellers – often the best and most widely read of the whole lot. It was then the bookseller’s job to lead the reader, overwhelmed by the choice the book industry presented to them, to ‘the good stuff ’. It might sound like I’m describing a utopian paradise but, while not without its flaws, the system worked after its own fashion.
This chain has all but ceased to exist, and where it does it exists in a severely weakened form. Decision making within publishing houses is increasingly concentrated in the hands of sales directors (who always want something that looks like the last thing that sold well). In the wider world, the role of critics and commentators has immeasurably diminished. Not only is print media circulation in freefall decline, but the amount of space and resource devoted to literary reviews has shrunk to an alarming degree: I know the books editor of a large regional newspaper whose budget for putting together the books pages is now £150 per week. And, while high street booksellers continue to exist, to a large degree the market is dominated by the giant bazaar of Amazon, employing algorithms to tell you that if you liked X you’ll probably like Y.
With everything seemingly available to everyone all the time, in order to gain the attention of potential readers, publishers are – perhaps unsurprisingly – relying on two things: the tried and the tested. It is no coincidence that in the last ten years the market share of the bestseller has steadily increased. And if a publisher is to introduce something new, it must be a book with a hook – and that almost inevitably means relying on something outside the literary merit of the work itself: the book’s topical reference points or the backstory of the author.
Indicative of this shift is the increasing use of the term ‘promotable’ as a guiding principle for publishers seeking to attract the attention of an audience overwhelmed by data and choice. And this, I would argue, is the new and darker version of what Chaudhuri calls market activism.
There are, of course, many examples of this form of market activism in action. I can think of several extremely successful and mightily praised novels that seem to me to be little more than consciously constructed confections that instrumentally – if not cynically – tap into the concerns of modern Western society: multiculturalism, the growing gap between rich and poor, Islamic radicalism, money, power, and bankers. And while there is nothing wrong with novels that hold a mirror up to society, when these real-world concerns become the driving force of the work, the danger is that the art is lost.
This is also true of the many high-profile works that choose as their subject the personality of the author. The works trade on the fact that they are, overtly or covertly, a biography, satisfying the audience’s prurient curiosity by providing some – usually dark – insight into the maker’s real life. Despite this, these works are regularly regarded as literary endeavours of high merit and follow the most reliable route to commercial success. And all rely on agendas that lie outside the work itself, in order to provide the publicity that will drive them to a large market. But the risk is that we will move towards a monoculture in which only books with an external agenda are read, or indeed written, and, moreover, that writers are becoming increasingly aware of this necessary requirement and tailor their work in order to achieve this essentially commercial goal.
This leaves the artist no longer standing behind his work ‘paring his nails’ but right out front engaged in a personal or political debate with his or her audience.
This leaves the artist no longer standing behind his work ‘paring his nails’ but right out front engaged in a personal or political debate with his or her audience. furthermore threaten the role and activity of the artist themselves.
The process inevitably leads us increasingly to consider the content of the story and its relevance to the outside world while increasingly ignoring how the story is being told. I am regularly shocked by friends and colleagues – successful, influential, and sophisticated readers who fulfil roles as publishers, critics, and judges of high-profile literary prizes – who not only do not concern themselves with the issue of the integrity of the authorial voice and how the tale is being told (who is telling the story, why, and how) but also actively disregard it. It seems they do not view these literary concerns as having any place in consideration of a piece’s literary merit. The contemporary critical world is focused almost exclusively on the what, to the near exclusion of all other factors. And in so doing, it is risking the pleasure of reading and degrading the pleasure of literature to that of watching the latest box-set.
In this maelstrom of noise, publishers are intimidated out of taking risks on stories without an outside agenda because of the spectacular lack of traction those books achieve in the vast, anonymised world of book retail. And, as I suggested earlier, the even greater risk is that writers are turning ever more to the personal or topical simply in order to stay relevant in the new set of terms adopted by the market.
But while these challenges threaten the state and future of literary publishing, there remains hope; there remains a future for great books. With the disruptive force of new technology comes opportunity. Access to a global reading audience lies in everyone’s hands at the touch of a button. The cost of effective marketing has never been lower and the digital revolution brings the means of production down to virtually zero – dismantling the barriers to entry so that individuals can publish their own works.
Now, I do not advocate self-publishing – I passionately believe in the curative power of the publisher – but the key benefit to these changes in the means of production and distribution is that it enables the very small expert publisher to flourish. The future of true literary publishing lies in the hands of the micro-publisher. To my mind – certainly in the UK – the most interesting literary works today are being published by houses that employ fewer than 10 people with an annual turnover of less than about £2million: Hesperus, Alma Books, Persephone, Arcadia, And Other Stories, Pushkin. This growing group of very small independent houses is producing challenging and innovative work with fl air and élan.
Eimear McBride’s astonishing A Girl Is a Half formed Thing is the perfect example of what I mean. It is an uncompromising literary work that is all about how it was made, a work that doesn’t seek references outside the narrative. It was originally published by Galley Beggar Press, a tiny publishing house in Norwich, England. McBride had spent nine years trying to get the book published – ironically, that was the story that helped the book get noticed.5 It is rightly celebrated as a significant work by a talented new author with a highly distinctive voice and has been recognised by four major literary prizes, including the Goldsmith (which brought the work to wider attention) and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
It is quite astonishing to me that A Girl Is a Half formed Thing took so long to be published, and it is equally alarming how many people I know – who really should know better – describe it as being a very ‘difficult’ novel. Its long journey and eventual success at a micro-publisher is the story of our times.
In conclusion, I think the future of literary publishing lies with the micro-publisher. Through them we are seeing a return to the values of ‘expert activism’ I described at the beginning of this piece. Unquestionably, we operate in a more competitive, more hostile, more anti-intellectual environment than hitherto. But that environment creates an even greater need for expert activism to support and bring forward great writing. There is an indomitable spirit in publishing that keeps believing that quality will rise to the top… and still, sometimes, I believe it does.
1. Actually it’s pretty easy to make money publishing books with no other merit than their commercial appeal. It’s also pretty easy to publish great books if making money is not an ambition (or a requirement). The hard thing – and therefore the thing that is endlessly engaging – is making money out of good or even great books.
2. It is worth remembering that at the turn of the century book retail was booming: the UK had three confident and expanding bookselling chains (Waterstones, Borders, and Ottakars), a plethora of vibrant regional bookstores, and more than 4,000 bookshops on the high street (more than double the number we have today).
3. Mick Brown, ‘Woke up, got out of bed, had a fag… and wrote a bestseller,’ Daily Telegraph, 17 February 2001, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ culture/4721776/Woke-upgot-out-of-bed-had-a-fag…and-wrote-a-bestseller.html
4. John B. Thompson, writing about the collapse of the Net Book Agreement and the rise of Amazon and the chains, has the following to say: ‘The overall impact has been an upward drift in the average discount that publishers off er to the retail sector: roughly ten per cent of margin has been transferred from publishers to retailers in a period of less than ten years.’ See John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, Second Edition (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), p. 312.
5. ‘I finished the third draft of girl in the summer of 2004 so between then and publication in the summer of 2013, she had quite a bumpy ride. There was the glitzy agency who said they “might” off er representation if I re-wrote it to their exact specifications and the publisher who said he was only interested if he could sell it as a memoir. Then all the major publishing houses turned it down with glowing refusals – although it was nearly taken up by two, who shall remain nameless, only to be vetoed later on the grounds of being unmarketable. A small press in Dublin showed interest for a while and then also backed off as they couldn’t “afford to take any risks”. When I pulled them up on this they said they’d reconsider, were just waiting to hear about their Arts Council funding and would be in touch. They never were. So eventually girl was consigned to the drawer and over time I made some embittered peace with that.’ See David Collard, ‘Interview with Eimear McBride,’ The White Review, May 2014, http:// www.thewhitereview.org/interviews/interview-witheimear-mcbride/
Editor’s note: I had actually invited David’s wife, Kirsty Gunn, to the symposium. But Kirsty recommended her husband with a specific aim in mind. ‘He will be able to tell you the story of Canongate,’ she said, ‘and its alarming transition to “market activism” from “literary activism” once it acquired Yann Martell’s Life of Pi.’ As it happened, Graham told us that story (as well as other, related ones) with a different emphasis in Calcutta. He argued for what I’d called ‘market activism’ being a robust enabler of the literary novel in the 1990s. For those of us gathered that day in order to critique the terms the market had set us, it was instructive to listen to his argument. Graham is the only one in that first symposium who made a case for the past achievements of the market in energising the literary.
David Graham has worked in independent publishing for over 30 years. Former roles include Managing Director of Canongate Books and of Granta and Portobello Books. He is currently Managing Director of award-winning illustrated independent, Pavilion Books.
This essay was originally presented at the inaugural symposium in Calcutta in December 2014. It was collected with other papers in a volume called Literary Activism: A Symposium, edited by Amit Chaudhuri and published in 2017 by Oxford University Press and Boiler House Press.