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This item is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

An American friend wrote to me in response to an article in Publishers Weekly. It described the changing culture in American publishing, with the currently open-ended strike by part of the staff at HarperCollins’s New York Offices in the background. She was remembering her own early experience. ‘I cannot imagine working only eight hours a day in publishing. We always attended various daily meetings and frequently could meet print deadlines only by reading manuscripts during some evenings and weekends. The starting salaries and profit margins were indeed low, but book editing and publishing were nonetheless an interesting and sometimes glamorous way to make a living – and it is a career that makes a difference. Of course, the increasingly corporate atmosphere that monitors screen time and keystrokes can get on one’s nerves…’

HarperCollins is currently a subsidiary of News Corps which recorded record profits in 2021. It claims that the average salary of a HarperCollins employee is $55,000. The minimum salary is $45,000. ‘None of that is an amount you can live on in New York City’, said a spokesperson for the strikers. The company asks its employees to come into the Manhattan office at least one day a week – working requirements that have gone beyond ‘hybrid’. Strikers do manage regularly to attend the picket lines outside the main offices. They are represented (there must be a story here) by the United Auto Workers’ Union. The employers’ spokesman declared, ‘HarperCollins has agreed to a number of proposals that the UAWU is seeking to include in a new contract. We are disappointed an agreement has not been reached and will continue to negotiate in good faith.’

My friend’s experience of publishing did not take for granted the contractual eight (or seven and a half) hour working day as an applicable measure to a job which also saw itself as a vocation, a collaboration with specific writers, booksellers and the reader. It was a vocation that could hardly be more central to the making and dissemination of literature, and of written works with less grand pretensions.

The independent little press publishers and their staffs today must seem an anachronism to the people who debate the merger of Simon and Schuster and Penguin, recently blocked by an American judge on monopoly grounds, and to UAWU negotiators. Their bigger public world reminds us of the eponymous game, publishers gathering up in their skirts whole neighbourhoods of imprints – The Angel Islington, Pentonville Road, Marlborough Street, and ( just before the game is over) Park Lane and Mayfair.

CB Books turns fifteen this year and Charles Boyle wrote a brief memoir of his experiences of publishing, from his inheritance of £2,000 from a kindly uncle to his unsubsidised and critically acclaimed, if commercially reluctant, enterprise (see CB editions newsletter 15 November). He has two handsome shelves of books to his credit, most of them unusual and all of them distinctive in presentation and design. Some of them are poetry.

To larger publishers, poetry, traditionally Cinderella to the well-heeled ugly sisters of fiction and cookery, can provide an unexpected profit centre. There are big commercial successes – the Rupi Kaur and Amanda Gorman phenomena. Some commercial lists add well-known poetry editors and commission first collections, import American success and resurrect the dead, giving their titles high profile marketing and advertising. Agents are alert to poets, too, in part at least because they occasionally turn in successful prose books. Advances for some kinds of poetry are substantial. Creative writing programmes (run by publishers themselves) encourage poets whose plausibility makes the work of editors more challenging than it once was. Despite these developments, a larger transformation has not yet taken place. Commercially successful poetry books remain exceptions, career poets who actually make a living from royalty earnings are few and far between. Most career poets survive by teaching creative writing and giving public readings. The poetry collection is a passport as well as a glacially slow-selling commodity.

Independent poetry presses are to the main book trade rather as independent booksellers are to Waterstones. They are different less in kind than in culture, concentrating on readership rather than market. This year Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations applied for a further three years’ funding; once again the forms publishers were required to complete did not mention ‘readers’: the word ‘audience’ underlined an inherent bias. The kinds of data clients are expected to gather have to do with attendance at events rather than attendance to printed texts. A careful distance was kept from artistic questions, as though they were peripheral.

PN Review benefits from Arts Council support under the Carcanet Press RFO umbrella. We are grateful for support for a further three years. In that time we will encourage the Council to relearn the word ‘reader’ as a constituent member of our cultural population, and to recognise that the distinct art forms and each client are different in kind from one another, just as CB Editions in its fifteen years has never once resembled Penguin Books or Hachette – or Bloodaxe, Seren or Carcanet – and yet has produced some literary landmarks. I doubt that Charles Boyle could, even if he wished to, provide a job description for what he does. I doubt that he earns the HarperCollins minimum wage or could bring himself to conform to the conditions of a contracted employee.

This item is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

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