The Truth about Publishing (1926)

Found in RL2463_1 The Truth about Publishing (Allen & Unwin, London 1926) this flier/ order form for the book ‘to be published in September.’ Quite an early use of the word ‘blurb.’ The pamphlet ends with this tongue-in-cheek claim ‘…The Truth about Publishing is a long book but it is published at a low price. This happy combination is due to the fact that the publishers were able to dictate their own terms to the author.’ Our illustration shows a later version of the book illustrated with a portrait of Sir Stanley Unwin by Oskar Kokoschka. He is not to be confused with the great comedian Stanley Unwin  (‘deep joy.’)

A ‘Blurb’

Mr. Stanley Unwin is not tongue-tied, like the ghost of the elder Hamlet. No power on earth or in heaven can forbid him to tell the secrets of his publishing house. ‘The Truth About Publishing’ – how fascinating a theme! Cannot we see authors (whose name is legion, but who, in general, are parsimonious book-buyers) queuing up in Museum Street, burning with eagerness to have their should harrowed by these revelations? ‘Are our suspicions to be justified? Will it prove as bad as we thought?’ – thus we can imagine one Author saying to another while they await their turn.

Readers of ‘The Truth About Publishing’ will find it a fascinating book, of fit is written by one who is a master of his craft of book-publishing; has served his apprenticeship in the book-printing trade, as a publisher’s traveller, and as volunteer assistant to a German bookseller; and has the witty and humorous pen of a ready writer. A successful publisher, withal, eager, not only to inform, but also to criticise. Genially and shrewdly he criticises, not authors alone, but publishers and printers and papermakers and bookbinders and booksellers and book buyers (when there are any) as well. This criticism is always kindly, always helpful – always directed towards the cause he has most at heart, the production and distribution of good books. Incidentally, he makes a modest livelihood (not a fortune!) by the process? Agreed! That is why he is so well qualified to tell us all about it, and to convince his readers that the good publisher is an expert in whom, with due precautions, we may trust; not a necessary evil, but a necessary good.

On his title-page is a quotation from a famous publisher of an artier generation, with which this blurb may aptly close. (Yes, Mr. Stanley Unwin tells us all about blurbs, in his volume of cheerful indiscretions! – but he has not written this one himself). ‘It is by books that mind speaks to mind, by books the world’s intelligence grows; books are the tree of knowledge, which has grown into and twined its branches with those of the tree of life, and of their common fruit men eat and become as gods knowing good and evil.’


Amateur Journalism and Vanity Publishing (1880)

Found - Journals and Journalism (with a guide for literary beginners) published by the Leadenhall Press (London 1880.) The author is stated as 'John Oldcastle' - a pseudonym of Wilfrid Meynell (1852-1948) who became a newspaper publisher and editor. It is likely that the book appeared because at the time journalism was all the rage, like photography in the 1960s or developing apps now…It is full of good advice, occasionally caustic in tone, and starts out with a warning to 'amateurs'. The final part of this extract from the first chapter deals with vanity publishing scams, and refers to an amusing scandal when one scammer sued another. These 'bubbles' were then common and are still with us on the internet. The entire text can be found at Brewster Kahle's incredible expanding Internet Archive.

Even more fatally amateurish is the practice, not uncommon with beginners, of addressing a more or less gushing note to an editor, disclaiming any wish for remuneration, and intimating that the honour of appearing in his valuable paper is all the reward that is asked. A contribution that is worth printing is worth paying for; and to an established paper the trifling sum due for any ordinary article is a matter of no consequence whatever — a mere drop in the bucket of printing and editorial expenses.In the case of a new paper, not backed by much capital, it is different.Gratuitous contributions may there be welcome ; but such a paper will hardly live; nor, if it did, would there be much prestige attached to an appearance in its pages. Besides, the offer of unremunerated labour to an experienced editor will often, and legitimately, be resented. He feels that an attempt is being made to bribe him, and, however absurd the bribe, the idea is not pleasant. There is, in a word, only one fair and sufficient test of capacity in literature as in the other arts, and that is the test of competition in the open market. Our old friends Supply and Demand ...are the only trustworthy umpires in the matter...

As to the style of amateurs, though we have just spoken of freshness as their possible characteristic, the curious fact is that, contrary to natural expectation, they generally write more conventionally than the hacks of journalism. The amateur sets himself too energetically to keep the trodden ways ; he is too timid to allow any originality which he may possess to assert itself; and it is only when he is familiar with the necessary laws that he gives himself a desirable ease and liberty in non-essentials.

Finally, let amateurs beware of " amateur magazines," and of agencies for the profitable placing of literary work. These are generally bubbles — bubbles that will burst as soon as they are pricked with a silver or a golden pin. Some years ago an action was brought by one of these amateur associations against another ; and a number of dreadful young men of nineteen, with long hair, and spectacles, appeared in court as plaintiffs and defendants. No doubt the original promoters of such an organisation traded to good purpose on the credulity and ambition of the provincial and the young, beginning with a profession of philanthropy, and ending with a request for a subscription. They soon had their imitators, however ; the monopoly was broken, the spoils divided; and what with the exposure resulting from their internal dissensions, and the bitter individual experience of the thousands who lent willing ears and purses to their allurements, we may hope that their occupation is now gone.


Quest for Fire ‘undeserving of translation’

Found with the press cutting about Anthony Burgess inventing a grunt language for the 1980 movie Quest for Fire, this reader's report for Souvenir Press about the possibility of publishing an English translation of the original 1911 book. The report is by the distinguished translator Eric Mosbacher (1903-1998) who had translated Freud and Silone and at the time of the report would have been working on Pitgrilli's novel Cocaine. Not noted is the fact that J.H. Rosny's book  had already been translated by one H.Talbott and had appeared in America in 1967 under the Pantheon imprint. The mention of 'strip cartoons' is fortuitous as the book had appeared in France more than once in this format.

La Guerre du Feu. 
By J. H. Rosny Aine.

Published by Bibliotheque-Charpentier, 11 Rue de Grenelle Paris (1911)

This remarkably uninspired story is totally undeserving of translation, and the Souvenir Press Ltd. should firmly decline it. It was obviously written many years ago and half-heartedly masquerades as literature, but belongs to a genre which has long since been overtaken by the strip cartoon. The time is prehistoric, thousands and thousands of years ago, when the aurochs and the mammoth still flourished.

A primitive tribe called the Oulhamr has just suffered a heavy defeat by its enemies, who not only inflicted heavy casualties but put out the saved fire. It is essential to the tribe's survival to get the fire back, and Faouhm, the tribal chief, promises his daughter to anyone who succeeds in this. Two warriors, Naoh and Aghoo, compete for this prize. Naoh is a relatively nice chap and eventually kills the disagreeable Aghoo as well as his two undesirable brothers and comes back with some fire. Everyone is delighted with him, and he is promoted to share the chieftaincy with Faouhm, who grabs his daughter Gammla by her hair and unceremoniously deposits her at his feet. The caste also includes mammoths, tigers, cats. Eric Mosbacher 8/5/79


Reggie Caton (R.A. Caton of Fortune Press)

Discovered in a copy of Raymond Tong’s Angry Decade, a slim volume brought out by the famous Fortune Press in August 1951, is that rarest of objects—a review slip inscribed in the handwriting of the actual  publisher, R. A. Caton—known to his friends (if he had any) as 'Reggie'. Nowadays a publisher’s slip like this would normally be filled in by some unpaid, starry-eyed intern with a B.A.(Hons) in Englit. But much as penny-pinching Reggie would have welcomed free help back in 1951, any new graduate would probably have walked out of his basement HQ in Belgrave Road, before a week had elapsed, so unpleasant, by all accounts, was this particular employer. One Fortune Press author, Margaret Crosland,  told me that Caton looked like 'a second-rate accountant, wearing the traditional dirty raincoat, on his way to a sex shop.'

'The Fortune Press' , Philip Larkin complained in 1945, 'is only a yelping-ground for incompetents who can’t get a hearing elsewhere' . At the time Larkin had just posted his novel Jill to Caton, who was also preparing to bring out his debut collection of poems, The North Ship. The protracted publication of both books and the censorship of Jill by Caton (himself, ironically, a publisher of mild homosexual porn) kept their author in a fury of irritation and frustration for years —a state of mind which was soon to be shared by his friend Kingsley Amis, whose own first slim volume, Bright November was also to be taken on by Caton. Both men concocted private, long-running jokes about their publisher, and according to Larkin, Amis never lost an opportunity of introducing the seedy publisher into his novels, sometimes under a thinly disguised pseudonym.

But for all his tardiness and physical repulsiveness, Caton was a visionary who was responsible for bringing out more debut volumes by good poets than just about any other publisher in the UK. And considering that he operated alone, this is an astonishing achievement. Having begun in 1925 as the vanity publisher of  C Day Lewis’s now almost unobtainable Beechen Vigil, by 1939 had published some of the earliest work by Lawrence Durrell, and by the end of the war had taken on Gavin Ewart, Roy Fuller Julian Symons,  Henry Treece, Nicholas Moore, Francis Scarfe, Tambimuttu, and Drummond Allison. In all, he published more than 600 books between 1924, when he set up his press, and the late sixties, when he finally shut up shop. He died in 1971.

Neither Amis nor Larkin received a penny for their work , but Caton did manage to recompense a few  (in Inside the Forties Derek Stanford, who gives a graphic description of his dealings with the publisher, claimed to be one of the lucky ones). Many were happy to pay Caton for the thrill of seeing their poems in print. In return Caton, by listing his authors and their works on the backs of each dust jacket, made his customers feel as valued as any of the poets of the more eminent houses, such as  Faber. At the same time he cut corners to keep down costs. Apparently, in the early years of the war, he stockpiled a huge amount of cheap binding cloth of various colours and textures, which accounts for the variety of bindings you can find. In contrast, by the fifties, when presumably Caton had become more prosperous, you could  buy copies of Terence Greenidge’s Girls and Stations (1952), in mock alligator skin bindings. [RMH]


Flexible Books from Jonathan Cape

In a little recorded piece of publishing history Jonathan Cape in 1934 issued a series of small books called Flexibles. They were cloth covered books with dust jackets but the covers were much thinner than hardbacks and  flexible. They were a sort of half-way house between paperbacks and hardbacks. The first Penguin paperbacks appeared the next year and may have caused the premature demise of this series after only 10 books. They were quite stylishly presented and pleasant to handle. All were reprints.

The first in the series Lewis Browne's The Story of the Jews was probably re-issued as a counter to  the rise of Hitler.  Others in the series include Hemingway's Men Without Women (uncommon now especially in the jacket) Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and later Dubliners, followed by Beverley Nichols Twenty-Five. The last 'flexible' was Italian Backgrounds by Edith Wharton, number ten in the series. All came out in 1934 and as far as can be ascertained there was no number eleven. Amazon has this review of the fifth book in the series Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs: 

No plot devices or car chases here--this is a book to read on a rainy afternoon when nostalgia and melancholy threaten to overwhelm. It's comfort food like grandma used to make--reassuring, soul-fortifying, and full of the capacity to cheer. It's also addictive--once you take a bite out of Pointed Firs, you can't stop.