A writer friend was rung by her agent. He had good news. The author’s publisher had acted with surprising dynamism and efficiency and had secured for her next novel privileged, front-of-shop status with of the one of the book chains. ‘I think you should send them some flowers,’ said the agent.
Pleased as she was, the author was slightly surprised by this idea. ‘Flowers?’
‘Or maybe a bottle of something nice, with a grateful note. They’ve done well. It’s important for an author to offer a bit of support and encouragement on these occasions.’
‘I rather thought it was meant to be the other way round,’ said the writer. ‘Surely it’s the publisher who normally offers support and encouragement to the author.’
‘Not these days, it isn’t,’ said the agent. ‘Shall I call Interflora or will you?’
As is so often the case, an uncomfortable truth was here being delivered by a literary agent. The age of the caring and sensitive publisher died some time in the late 1980’s during the days of recession and takeover. Today, if you’re a big-shot author, you might receive a large, aggressively garish bouquet wrapped in cellophane on publication day but you will know that this is more an expression of budgetary machismo than a token of warmth. For the rest of us, the task of cheer-leading and bolstering morale has gone the way of editing, blurb-writing and publicity: once the role of publishers, it now falls to the more conscientious and efficient author.
The reason for the change is not difficult to find. While most writers are relatively at ease with themselves – they may be broke, misunderstood and alone but at least they are doing what they want to do – people in publishing tend to be emotionally dysfunctional in one way or another.
The problem used to be financial, with some publishing executives feeling guilty because they lived off private incomes while others felt resentful because they did not. These days, though, the book business rewards itself handsomely and only very junior staff are underpaid on the grounds that a bit of exploitation early in one’s career ignites that spark of anger which all good publishers must have.
Yet, on every floor of a publishing house, small personal tragedies and slow-burn freak-outs are being enacted. Senior managers of the larger conglomerates are haunted by the idea that they have lost contact with what they like to call ‘the real world’. They long to be editors or run marketing campaigns, to ‘roll their sleeves up’ rather than waft about pointlessly in a world of balance-sheets, big lunches and corporate bonding weekends. The bosses of smaller firms, by an unhappy paradox, long to be head-hunted for a well-paid job in a large corporation.
Editors want to be anything but editors. Most have them have had a crack at writing, ruining what would have been a perfectly good holiday in Tuscany by locking themselves away in a bedroom and setting to work on a novel that will eventually peter out, exhausted, halfway through Chapter Three. Now they dream hopelessly of becoming agents.
Somewhere in the building, anonymous and unnoticed, will be a copy-editor. When, in the last issue of The Author, Derek Parker told the story of a proof-reader in New York who was found to be dead at his desk a week after he had suffered a fatal coronary, he touched on a fundamental truth. Until 15 years ago, publishers habitually kept a couple of copy-editors in a cupboard under the stairs. They were pale, owlish creatures, who only came to life when confronted by a split infinitive or hanging participle, but they were generally thought to serve a purpose.
During the 1990’s, publishers realised that overheads were being spent on people whose only job was to deal with words. This seemed rather pointless and old-fashioned, so they took to filling their editorial departments with corpses. Today, the phrase which will be familiar to all professional authors, ‘sent out to a freelance’, is in fact publishing code for putting a manuscript or a proof in front of a dead person while the author does all the work on it.
So the discontentment goes on. Sales directors resent being the lackeys of the big bookshops. Reps are worried about their jobs and angry that they occasionally have to read (they never liked reading anyway) in their spare time. Art directors and designers can never quite come to terms with the fact that they never made into advertising where the money is better, the company more amusing and substance abuse is actively encouraged among creatives.
Affairs? They happen occasionally but tend not to provide significant release from the malaise of daily professional life. Sex as a cry for help rarely works and when both participants are in pain the result is almost always a ghastly mess.
So it is up to authors to fill this emotional void with little messages of warmth and comfort, occasional bouquets, startling offers to pay for lunch, perhaps even a tenner enclosed with your card at Christmas-time. Such gestures will not bring any significant personal pay-off – publishers are so estranged from normal human behaviour that simple generosity can make them edgy and defensive, as if virtue is catching – but they may help make the world of books a less anguished and angry place. Every flower counts.