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June 02, 2006

Can newspaper book reviews be trusted? Christopher Peachment - a former Arts and Books Editor at The Times - replies to Jeremy Black and throws light on "sweetheart deals" in the book trade and the press

Posted by Christopher Peachment

The Sunday Times recently attacked the major booksellers for demanding money in order to push specific titles. This caused Prof. Jeremy Black to ask if newspapers would ever turn their attention to:

sweetheart deals between advertising/preferential sales deals in newspapers and reviews?
Christopher Peachment - novelist and former Arts and Books Editor at The Times - responds to Jeremy Black and sheds light on "sweetheart deals" in publishing and the press.

Jeremy Black asks some important questions in the wake of the Sunday Times revelations about booksellers demanding money from publishers to display their wares. In fact the practice has been around much longer than the Sunday Times thinks, but it still warrants an honest reply from the trade. To fill the likely echoing silence, I offer a few thoughts from my own experiences.

It is not just publishers who are on the receiving end of this practice. About four years ago I was editing a small magazine, and we tried to get on the shelves of WH Smith. They demanded a large some of money, I seem to remember about 10,000, for what they called a "display fee". Contrary to expectations, this did not mean any advertising or even preferential placing of the magazines close to a good point of sale. All it meant was that they would put the magazine on their shelves. They were, in plain English, demanding a bribe for doing what they, as a shop, should have been doing in the first place.

There is still some residual feeling, among the public, that publishing is still a "gentlemanly" affair. This has not been true for a long time, but now, more than ever, publishers are led by their marketing departments. No longer will a publisher support a middle-ranking novelist through a lean period, in the eventual expectation that he will write a "crossover" book. This is the sort of book which satisfies both critics, who have been calling him "thoughtful" (ie boring) or saying "beautifully written" (ie by a woman) for ages, but also the public. Thus turning him into, if not a best seller, at least a profitable one.

Nowadays, any writer is only as good as his last sales figure, and publishers will brutally dump any author who falters.

I have heard many stories about internal meetings at publishers at which the editors get around the table with their marketing department and the sales reps. There was a time when sales reps were low on the pecking order, just men in nylon shirts who plied the motorways, their jackets hanging on a peg in the back, doing deals with bookshops to get their books into a dump bin by the counter. They were in effect fairground barkers.

Not any more. Now the marketing men call the shots. An editor I know was running down his roster of authors at one of these meetings, and reached one who was proposing a historical novel on a certain unusual subject. The sales rep sucked his teeth and said:

Couldn't sell that, just no market for it.
And that was that, the author was struck from the list without further discussion, his contract cancelled. So we have reached a point where publishing is governed not by an editor's good taste and hunches, but by salesmen.

So too with many of the big name agents. No longer are they interested in nurturing their fledgling authors through hard times. I have heard of many authors who have reached their second or third book and have been dropped because they are not performing. Nor is there any talk of re-writes these days. Editors hardly ever demand them, nor agents. They haven't got the time to read the book that closely, nor to make the necessary notes and suggestions for correction. They are too busy forging six figure deals that make the headlines. And having lunch.

One Francophile of my acquaintance, a former critic as well as a writer of small, crystalline novels, turns his books in regularly to his agent, who puts them through by rote. He once said to me:

She reads five per cent of it, and takes fifteen per cent of my fee. Something odd there.

Another friend of mine who writes spy thrillers, recently had his contract with an American publishers torn up. The reason they gave was that his book failed to deliver what they expected. In fact the letter from the publishers reached him before he had submitted his novel.

His high-powered agent who had drawn up the contract in the first place, and had presumably missed a loophole, did not even complain to the publisher, let alone fight the case. He shrugged and said there was nothing he could do, the publisher was too powerful. What he didn't say was that he didn't want to jeopardise his future dealings with this publisher.

All of this militates against the reader getting choice. The most interesting writing, indeed the most interesting art, is usually found at the margins. With these kind of practices, there will soon be no margins.

To take up Professor Black's question about sweetheart deals between advertising and newspapers, this certainly does occur, but is not always quite as black and white as it appears. Within the newspaper, the advertising space salesmen are canny enough to know when a feature or review about a particular item is going in the paper, and they will duly contact the publisher or company concerned to offer them ad space.

They are not usually prompted by the editor who commissioned the review. But they don't need to be. If they are doing their job, they get wind of these things one way or another. And it is especially easy in this age of the linked-up office computer.

However the lines do become blurred, especially with magazines running "info-mercial" supplements, often in the same type-face as the magazine, so that they look like regular "objective" features, when they are nothing more than commissioned ads.

As to Professor Black's last point about books being reviewed in papers, corruption certainly creeps in all over the place here, although it is not always intentional. Whenever I was editing the books pages at The Times, I always tried first to match up a reviewer to a book. However this sometimes meant finding the only other professor in the country who specialised in Hittite blanket weaving. What then happened was either a bit of back-rubbing between distant colleagues who wanted to make up after an argument, to meet each other for the first time, or to have an affair. Or else there would be some of that vicious score-settling which only academics seem capable of.

The other thing I tried to take care of was not allowing a fiction reviewer to get near a novel which had been written by a friend, or an enemy, or even by someone published by the same company as the reviewer. But literary London is a small and shabby world. After a few years on the book launch circuit, and a few rounds bought in the Groucho or the Colony club, every novelist knows every other novelist.

Even if they have never met, they will still know all about them, who their enemies are and whom they last slept with. Reviewing popular books, especially fiction, can rarely be completely objective. Strangely enough the supposed scholarly TLS is especially nasty at score-settling. Or it was when I last looked at it some years ago.

As to Cambridge dons admitting they know nothing about the subject of the book they are reviewing. Well that's Cambridge, what can you expect? I'd never trust a place that gave birth to Oliver Cromwell. Besides, what is a man doing reviewing books when he already has a full-time job? When I was a commissioning editor, I always used to bear the poor freelances in mind first.

Then there is the business of the glamorous female author picture, from the back-flap (usually taken about ten years before her book was published). Editors of newspapers are notoriously anxious to get pictures of pretty women onto their pages, especially in the drier sections like books and business. So the literary editor, who needs to please his editor much more than he does any old book publisher, hardly needs prompting on that score.

I was once told by the editor to put a picture of James Dean onto the books page. Fortunately there was a biography that had been out for not much more than a decade or so. So I duly complied, though the result did look a little odd in The Times books pages. It was only later I learned that the editor's teenage daughter had a passion for the actor. I daresay we wooed a few young readers away from their porn sites.

That same editor allowed his managing editor to pull a feature from the Arts Pages and insert an ad for an opera performance which The Times happened to be sponsoring. And the only man to resign over that was the Arts Editor, who was blameless. When I was young I thought Evelyn Waugh's Scoop was black farce. Only when I became a journalist did I realise it was social realism.

So yes, Professor Black, the newspaper world is full of corruption. And its reporters are notoriously slack about scrutinising their own backyard. But then they have to work there, and advertising pays their wages. I think it was G. K. Chesterton who said that journalism was scribbling on the back of advertising.

Is it any different at Universities? From my own distant memories, I doubt it. I seem to remember lecturers who slept with their students, professors who stole material from their research students and passed it off as their own, and teachers who destroyed the career of other teachers because they disagreed with their championing of "deconstruction", or "literary theory" or whatever passing pseudo-theory they adhered to, before the next one came along.

In your own field of history, there were all those Marxists who still haven't admitted they were wrong, let alone apologised for the damage.

We are all fallen.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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Phew, and there I was worrying that there was something new and sordid at work in London's literary scene. Mr Peachment doesn't give us any evidence of "corruption" (paying people to abuse their office). Nor of anything else much new.

I've been reading biographies of Rosamond Lehmann and Rose Macaulay which remind one that the wrters' world was even more claustrophobic in the 1920 and 1930s than now. Besides, we are surely at the beginning of a self-publishing and self-publicising revolution which will blow much of this anxiety clear out of the water.

Posted by: Richard D North at June 6, 2006 11:58 AM
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