FROM THE PULPIT
longer the print run the lower the unit cost, and until recently it was not economically feasible to reprint in quantities of fewer than 500 or 750 (hence the failure to get Barbara back into print); but now, thanks to digital or laser printing – which,
EARLIERTHISYEARI received a phone call from the publisher John Seaton, who after many years with Penguin had recently moved to Faber. He wanted to know whether, by any chance, I happened to know who controlled the rights to the waspish and extremely funny memoirs of Barbara Skelton, the pantherine femme fatale who had been married to both Cyril Connolly and George Weidenfeld, and had included among her lovers Kenneth Tynan, Alan Ross, Feliks Topolski, Peter Quennell and King Farouk (who had flogged her with his dressing-gown cord on the steps of his palace – or so she claimed). I had got to know Barbara while writing a biography of Connolly, and since – for some inexplicable reason – she had appointed me to be her literary executor, I expressed keen interest when John revealed that he wanted to reprint Tears Before Bedtime and Weep No More in a new series he was editing. Life got even better when he went on to say that he would also like to include two out-ofprint books of mine in the Faber Finds list, along with works by Richard Cobb, John Bowen, Lionel Davidson, Geoffrey Grigson and Louis MacNeice. I put the phone down aglow with satisfaction. As Barbara’s literary executor, I had done shamingly little about trying to get her books back into print, but I had sensed, instinctively, that it would be an uphill battle. Although, in the dim and distant past, backlist sales were a steady and painless source of income for both publishers and booksellers, this had ceased to be the case: for a good many years now, reprinting books in modest quantities had become prohibitively expensive, while the chains and the supermarkets were only interested in stocking a restricted range of new titles, and celebrity memoirs in particular; the life of the average ‘trade’ book was said to be restricted to six weeks, and backlist sales were a thing of the past. What on earth had made Faber think they could buck the trend? The answer, John told me, lay in Print on Demand (PoD), and the new vistas opened up by digital printing; and as he spoke my eyes began to revolve on their stalks and I was seized by a terrible sense of panic. Although I dutifully plough through articles on e-books, laser beams and desktop publishing whenever I come across a copy of The Bookseller, I seldom understand a word of them; I am baffled by computers and terrified of technology. But I have received dim intimations of change. At a committee meeting of the R S Surtees Society – a fine body devoted to keeping the great huntsman’s novels in print – a representative of Butler & Tanner, the West Country printers, explained to us, in words of two syllables, about short-run reprints. With traditional printing methods, whether offset or letterpress, the
he told us, is technically far more akin to superior photocopying than to printing as we oldies know it – it is perfectly possible to reprint fifty copies and still attach a reasonable price to the finished product. Print on Demand also makes use of digital printing: and in this case it is perfectly possible to print single copies, as and when they are requested by a purchaser. PoD has been until recently the domain of DIY selfpublishers and of academic and specialist publishers, who aren’t too worried about price and often cater to a small and professional market: but in recent years the costs of PoD have come down, and ‘trade’ publishers have begun to take an interest in it as a means of making available (rather than keeping in print) backlist books which deserve a fresh lease of life. The PoD printer-cum-binder is provided with a digital file of the book in question or a printed copy, which he then dismantles and scans. Scanning costs about 35p a page, making the unit cost of a PoD book far higher than it would be if printed by conventional means. A copy is only printed if ordered by a customer, however; no money is tied up in slow-moving or unsaleable stock, there are no returns or warehousing costs, and – as Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury pointed out to me – overseas orders can be met by sending an electronic file to America or Australia, where the order is printed up by a local firm. The author will, or should, receive a conventional royalty on the retail price: although copies can be ordered from the publishers through bookshops or via the Internet, it seems likely that an increasing number of copies will be ordered directly by members of the public, so obviating the ever-burgeoning discounts offered to booksellers and improving the profitability of the venture from the publisher’s point of view. Provided authors don’t sign a blank cheque and give the rights away in perpetuity, PoD does at the very least make out-of-print or long-forgotten books available once more – even if they are, until actually ordered, floating in the ether rather than gathering dust in a warehouse in Essex or the Midlands, while boisterous bestsellers continue to be reprinted by more familiar means. Publishers’ reactions range from the cautious to the wildly enthusiastic: but for those of us who long to tell people where and how to get hold of our long-forgotten masterpieces, PoD comes like rain in the desert.
LITERARY REVIEW May 2008