To an outsider – and certainly to me before I became a writer – publishing can seem a rather gentlemanly industry. Surely what happens is that an elegant, erudite, well-read and softly-spoken chap in a tweed suit reads your work and then takes you for a quiet lunch in an oak-panelled bistro, promising to bring your oeuvre to the reading public to the mutual benefit of both writer and reader. Of course it’s not like that at all, and publishing – like any other industry – is built (and depends) on profit. And as such the decisions of publishers are sometimes enormously, bile-inducingly unfair. In a fair world, well-written books would be published and lauded while self-promoting, celebrity-endorsed drivel would never see the light of day – but, as we were all told by our parents from the age of about three onwards, life is not fair.
Today I read that the Eton Mess – our current Prime Minister, whose name is not spoken in this house – was rather distracted at the start of the pandemic by his need to meet a publishing deadline. Now, he has a former life as a journalist and has already published several books (mostly significantly discounted on Amazon, which gives me great pleasure), so I am not surprised that he is planning to write more. But given that his previous books did not much trouble the bestseller charts, why has Hodder & Stoughton promised him an advance of £250,000 (with £98,000 already paid) for his proposed book about Shakespeare, “The Riddle of Genius”?
Industry insiders report that the Mess’s book about Winston Churchill sold about a quarter of a million copies – but that’s a book by a politician about a politician. Are people who are interested in politics going to want to read about Shakespeare? And are those who are interested in Shakespeare going to care what a politician thinks about him (particularly one not known for his close relationship with historical accuracy), when there are far better qualified Shakespeare scholars out there (presumably being given much less generous advances for their books)? A cursory search suggests that publishers expect to keep about 10% of the cover price of a book – after paying the author, printer, distributor, bookshops, marketing costs and all the rest. If “The Riddle of Genius” appears in hardback at £25 and paperback at £15, and is quickly discounted, they’re going to need to shift hundreds of thousands of copies just to break even. From a commercial point of view, it seems a bad deal for everyone except the Mess himself. Although you have to laud his interest in the subject: mistress Jennifer Arcuri confirms that he would recite passages from “Macbeth” as foreplay during their encounters. I can only assume he chose “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”. If that doesn’t put you off your porridge, nothing will.