Thursday, May 26, 2011

The book industry in England

My guest blogger today is my late grandmother Marion Miller nee Hartfree who published the following in the Sydney Morning Herald 75 years ago today on the 26 May 1936 under the heading(s) 'The book industry in England: 17,000 published each year/ Impressions of Some Authors'.

The age of Bohemianism in London is dead, according to Miss Marion Hartfree, who is visiting Sydney after having been associated with a large publishing house in London for some years.

In the following article, Miss Hartfree says she was disappointed when she went into a publisher's office expecting to find that literary men had manes and roars like the literary men in novels.

She found that, with few exceptions, successful authors looked like successful business men. Authors were no longer expected to manifest eccentricities, and few of them did.

Unfortunately, one cannot repeat the best literary gossip of London. It concerns jealous authoresses who tear out each other's hair and novelists who spend their days evading bailiffs. But do not let me be misleading; it is generally just too dull to repeat.

The dullness of authors was my first great disillusion when I went from the country to work in the office of one of London's biggest publishers and found that the authors no longer had overgrown hair or drank their cheques away in brilliant orgies at the Cafe Royal. Neither were there, as a rule, wits like the Oscar Wilde of legends, enchanting old adventurers like Conrad, or booming wiseacres like Ruskin and Carlyle and other giants of the past.

Successful authors looked like successful business men (which they generally are), in bowler hats, hog skin gloves, and spats, and unsuccessful authors looked like - well, now I come to think of it, they looked like what I had always expected successful authors to be. As a rule, unsuccessful authors are the most pleasant kind of authors and very often the best.

The age of Bohemianism is dead in London. The writing and production of books are standardised like all other productions, and the most successful authors are those who, like Trollope, work at their job with a kind of office routine and produce their two books a year, one for each season, with the regularity of a nut puncher in a car factory.


Authors are no longer expected to manifest eccentric personalities, and few of them do. Of course, there are exceptions. One famous lady novelist was found sitting outside our office one day on the edge of the gutter eating sandwiches. When we invited her to come inside she said that she did not want to bother anybody. She had thought of eating her lunch in the church opposite, but, unfortunately, she had found that her uncle was preaching a sermon there. "It doesn't seem fair to him," she said.

Literary parties in London are the dullest and most un-Bohemian affairs imaginable - at least to anybody who does not know all the little jealousies, vanities, scandals, love affairs etc., simmering below the surface. This might be said of a bankers' party, too, for the bankers also have little jealousies, vanities, scandals, love affairs, etc.

After six months in this disappointing atmosphere it was with relief that I idled through the office one day to see a cadaverous gentleman with longish hair and flowing bow tie and a Harris tweed coat - the paraphernalia of the real old timer of literature. Accustomed to seeing only gentlemen like stockbrokers around the office, it took me some time to realise that he was not a gas mechanic but an author. He was, in fact, Mr. Humbert Wolf, England's most successful poet, whose book "This Blind Rose" sold as well as a modest best seller in fiction.

Humbert Wolf is probably the only poet living, except in some remote backblocks town in America, who looks like a poet but his general air of careless untidiness has probably nothing to do with his poetry at all.

The only other author I ever met who looked the part was Naomi Mitchison, the late Professor Haldane's daughter, whose bright eccentric clothes and more or less eccentric ways are in the true style of romantic literary behaviour.


The apotheosis of the unliterary looking literary person is Dorothy L. Sayers, who is perhaps the most successful literary person in London to-day. She is as smart and brisk and bouncing and efficient as a business executive. She worked in an advertising office and there began writing detective stories which were so much out of the ordinary detective stories, so well written, so full of interesting information, that they made the detective story fashionable even for Bloomsbury intellectuals. Everybody who has read "Murder Must Advertise", or "The Nine Tailors", or "The Five Red Herrings", must have been impressed by the minutely careful background of her tales. Her scholarship is simply immense. Every detail about bell-ringing, or the internal economy of a West End Club, or the business methods of an advertising office, or the mechanism of publishing, is as precise as a life-time expert could make it.

Her specialty is poisons. She is sufficient of an expert on them to write a standard work if she ever wanted to. Miss Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford. She went to Somerville College, which has produced a large crop of writing women, including Vera Brittain, the late Winifred Holtby, and Sylvia Thompson who wrote the best seller, "Hounds of Spring".

The largest seller in the autumn season of last year was Dorothy Sayers' "Gaudy Night", of which 30 000 copies went before publication. That represents several thousand pounds in royalties. With all her books selling like hot cakes and motion picture producers pursuing her from two continents, her income must be very close to five figures. With "Gaudy Night", she was officially accepted into serious literature by the Book Society, which gave her the choice for the month. Like many emancipated women she has a home, a house, and a husband.


Almost as successful as Miss Sayers, very pleasant, unspoiled by success, is R. C. Sherriff, author of "Journey's End", who was a comparatively poor man when his play began to break records. He had always nurtured a longing to go to Oxford and when he found that he could afford to go to Monte Carlo or anywhere else in the world he did not change his ambition. He spent three years as a humble undergraduate at Oxford where he achieved a new and, apparently to him much more precious, fame int he rowing club, where he became a coach. He does not seem to be nearly so interested in writing as rowing, but his plays continue to be big draws, and just before I left London, "St. Helena", which he wrote with Jeanne de Casalis, was booked out in its first weeks in the West End, after a triumphant season at the Old Vic. He is a charming man, unspoiled by his enormous success.

it is a pity one cannot say this about more authors, but perhaps they earn the right to be a little severe after the hard struggle for success which all authors have on the crowded literary market to-day. Every year the publishers of England send forth 17,000 books to try their luck. In the days of Dickens and Thackeray, Shelley, Byron and Keats, who were young men when they enjoyed fame, less than a tenth of that number of books appeared each year. Besides, there were no circulating libraries. The author sold more books, if he sold at all. To-day there are few authors in England who make more than a bare living wage out of their novels alone. Three to five thousand copies is considered a good sale and five thousand copies means about £300 in royalties. Hence the rush to turn out a novel a year and the decline in the number of authors who are authors only.

Many authors have some other job, in the professions or as journalists, school-teachers, bank clerks, etc. A. J. Cronin, the author of "Hatter's Castle," is a doctor, for example; Bernard Newman, author of "Spy", is in the Office of Works; J. L. Hodson is a newspaperman. Which explains why the picturesqueness of London literary life has waned and why I was disappointed when I went into a publisher's office expecting to find that literary men had manes and roars like the literary men in novels.

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