Learning to be a publisher

I don’t often read the Times Literary Supplement – I find it bloodless –  but last week I happened to browse through the edition of 22 June, where I found a review of Michael Black, Learning to be a publisher: Cambridge University Press 1951-1987 Personal reminiscences (ISBN 978-1-107-40180-8).

I confess I didn’t read the review – because I knew as soon as I saw the notice that I would have to read the book. For one thing, it would be difficult to avoid reading a book with a main title such as that. For another, I was familiar with Black’s name in relation to the world of English Studies and was intrigued to learn more of the story behind the many CUP publications that, over the years, I have read.

The book runs to 250 pp.  It is distributed by the Cambridge University Press (CUP) bookshop at 1 Trinity Street, Cambridge. I bought my copy there at the end of the day on Friday (July 6th). That I’m writing this now at lunchtime on Sunday (the 8th) tells you that I haven’t put in down very much during the waking hours between. I found it fascinating to read.

The book begins in another world – a post-war world in which Black’s working day at (CUP) started “at 10 a.m. (to allow the secretaries to open the mail and put it on th desk with the file, but mainly because it was hallowed Civil Service practice)” – Black’s post of Assistant Secretary was thought analogous to a Civil Service position. Lunch was 13.00-14.30 and tea was served – from a “huge teapot, thick willow-pattern cups and…cake from Fitzbillies” – at 16.00, in the Syndicate Room.

Publishing practices (especially in production) were even more remote from contemporary practice:

In producing an original and considered design for nearly every book, the printer was as it were proclaiming an ideal…the Monotype process and the Press’s long apprenticeship had blossomed into this superb capability…Cambridge books of the period are one of the great achievements of hot-metal letterpress printing.

For some publishing folk this type of thing would provide a cue for Jeremy Lewis-style wallowing in nostalgia and great lamentation about the world we have lost. Black never wallows: he can appreciate the quaintness of it all, but is too hard-headed to indulge such feeling. His prose style could not accommodate much in the way of wallowing: it is orderly and restrained.

It’s both fascinating and amusing to read how elements of contemporary (and, indeed, now long-established) publishing practice – elements that today we take for granted – had in fact to be introduced, sometimes in the face of argument. The Syndics (who make the decisions over what the press publishes) receive papers about each proposed book, with the publishing rationale and costings, ahead of the publishing meeting? Wow! The office in New York was allowed to commission authors, rather than just sell books? Extraordinary!

But, through it all, many aspects of commissioning and list-building remain recognisable. Take, for example, Black’s account of campus calling. He would arrange an appointment with a prospective author and then:

When I got inside the door I could say what we were doing in the subject, ask for names of people doing good work there or elsewhere…and then get round to what the host was writing. This might produce an actual typescript there and then, or might lead to my writing, when I was back in the office, a letter inviting a proposal on particular lines. The visit might also lead me to write to one or more of the names I had been given or to note them for a future visit.

My own procedure differs in one regard – I give greater priority to ‘what the host [is] writing’, but in general this is very familiar.

Black is good on the business of list-building and the editor’s role within it:

No sensible editor pursues a single line, even if he or she must have a positive set of preoccupations. My…sense was that I was, like it or not, continuing something which had started long before me: the CUP English list went back to the early 1900s and is still in some ways massively moving along…it had its silent slow momentum – still has: so books come in, solicited or not, to join the uncontentious solidity.

“Uncontentious solidity” is unromantic, but is a good thing to have in a list. (In my view the editor gives the list character, but as the conductor rather than composer.)

Lists sometimes develop almost by chance – Black describes how English begat Drama, which begat Theatre and Performing Arts. Luck plays a part – a good author (in the case of Black’s drama list, Andrew Gurr) might come forward as the list is taking shape.

I have given plenty of quotation to illustrate the flavour of the book. I hope this will encourage readers to take it up. It isn’t perfect: there is no index; and I found the account of machinations in the 1960s tiresome. Nevertheless it’s that rare thing – a good book on publishing, by a publisher, for publishers.


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