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Part 3

Buying Rights. Selling Books. (con’t)

McNAMARA: In America, the independent-bookstore structure is so fragile.

BOYARS: It’s even worse here, if you want to know. There’s no "structure" at all.

McNAMARA: Is that because of the end of the net book agreement?

The net book agreement prevented English booksellers from discounting the price of new books; it collapsed in September 1995, when several large publishers and a major book retailer withdrew from the agreement; other publishers soon followed suit. Earlier this year, suit was brought by the government’s Office of Fair Trading to abolish the agreement, as it was now ineffective. A defense of the agreement was mounted by a number of publishing and literary figures, including John Calder. In the meantime, Waterstone’s and Dillon’s, the two largest booksellers, have launched web sites; a British-based on-line bookstore now exists, as well as Amazon, the US-based on-line book service. The British sites will also offer books published in the US, before they appear in England. In 1996, 101,504 new titles (including 9,209 new works of fiction) were reported to have been published in Britain, compared to 95,064 in 1995.

BOYARS: The net book agreement has made absolutely no dent. It isn’t that every book is sold at a discount, it’s that the booksellers want huge discounts. Our discount structure will change completely. We used to give 25%; we now give 45%. Our books are not even costed that way.

McNAMARA: Meanwhile, the price of books goes up.

BOYARS: Of course it does, because you have to recoup.

McNAMARA: In the States, the terrible analogy some publishers have made is: The cost of a book is the same as the cost of three movies. It’s the wrong analogy, from my point of view, unless you’re interested in Jeffrey Archer or Patricia Cornwell, let’s say; then, yes: they are the cost of three movies.

BOYARS: Well, I don’t think it’s the price, I think it’s the fact that books are simply not sold properly. Barnes and Noble have just emptied their shelves -- it makes you despair.

McNAMARA: What would they do if they were selling books properly?

BOYARS: Well, the books are there: I think they should keep them on the shelves. The shelf-life is so terribly short. If they were only to keep the books on the shelves. People do go in to the shops to browse.

McNAMARA: I told you about the well-known American novelist whose book was published in late Spring. Two days after the books appeared in the stores, Michiko Kakutani reviewed it for the daily New York Times. She had liked the novelist’s last book -- a blurb from that review appeared on the cover of the new book -- but she demolished this one. It was a virulent review and unaccountable. But the novelist is a pro: she took it in stride. The worse news was this: the day the review appeared, Barnes and Noble began shipping returns. This she learned from her editor.

BOYARS: It’s a real horror story. If publishing were like any other industry, they would not have accepted the returns.

McNAMARA: Can they not accept them? The publisher was Knopf, dealing with Barnes and Noble: large corporation to large corporation. The Sunday Times, on the other hand, gave the book a good, an intelligent, review.

BOYARS: I would have talked to them, I would have said, "This is not fair, this represents a lifetime’s work, to become a writer. You don’t treat people like that, you don’t!" And they might have kept the books, I’m sure I would have prevailed. You have to be concerned about other people’s feelings. Subsequently, Barnes and Noble advertised the book in its summer catalogs.

Anyway, you asked me about volume rights. This is what you buy, in theory: you have total right to exploit anything that you can do with it. We actually have a clause in our contract about "any means." This is why I insist on this business about electronic rights, about means now invented and that might be invented in the future: because things change all the time, and you mustn’t cut yourself off from the market.

I’m very positive about the internet, electronic bookselling and so on. I can see there’s future in it, additional markets. And the booksellers are doing badly, on the whole. The independents are in a dreadful situation. They are being persecuted out of existence by the chains.

McNAMARA: How will distribution change with the web, do you think? I believe you mentioned, for example, that Amazon takes a big discount from you.

BOYARS: Not from us! No, no; they make an arrangement with Ingram [the distributor/wholesaler], but they do give a discount to the customer. You see, the book business in America is very different from the book business in England. America is a huge country, and wholesalers are most important. We have wholesalers, too, but they’re no good. The American wholesalers take every one of our books: such a thing does not exist that they do not take our books. They may take 5000 copies, or they may take 500 copies, but they take them. In the first place, they know that they can return them; in the second, the smaller bookshops buy from the wholesalers, they don’t buy much directly from us, not in America. But they do take a very high discount. Baker & Taylor and Ingram [wholesalers] now take 55%.

Now here, it’s completely different. Bookstores buy directly from the publishers. Baker & Taylor were going to start up in England. I went to the London Book Fair, and there was a Baker & Taylor stand. I said, "Welcome, welcome, welcome." He said, "What are you talking about?" I said: "Well, I publish in America as well, and I love Baker & Taylor, you’re doing a marvelous job." He said, "You’d welcome a proper wholesaler?" "Very much," I said. But they couldn’t make it. The chains -- Dillon’s, Waterstone’s -- deal only with the publishers, the big publishers, and with us, too.

But in America, the scale is enormous, with book warehouses around the country. The library system is better, also. In England, the libraries have no money, so they can’t invest. Each county has its central library. They buy one book -- one each of any title -- for the whole county; and you’ll be lucky if you get to read it in six months, because you know there are already 500 people ahead of you who want to read the same book.

McNAMARA: Libraries now are scanning books, most often older books, into their systems. The books then can be read on computer, though I don’t know if they can be printed out. What do you think about that, and how does it affect your business? According to the NY Times, Sept. 2 -- too late for our conversation -- certain librarians have been consulting the leading American bookselling chains for advice about buying and shelving books; this follows the lead of several trade publishers, who have been reported consulting representatives of the chains about contracted books and -- in at least once instance -- about a manuscript.

BOYARS: Well, this is of course the whole question of the future. I think eventually what’s going to happen is that, instead of printing 5000 copies, it will be 3000; and the rest of them will be scanned or made available by computer. This is why I’m so keen on this copyright idea. That way, the publishers get paid: because you put just as much effort into a book if you print 1000 or 10,000 copies. That is why subsidiary rights are important. There is a financial investment, and there is a moral investment. I have only 20 new books a year: I’ve got to exploit them, I’ve got to. I don’t forget a book. I think that’s why authors like a smaller publisher, who’s invested a life into them.

It’s an advantage and a disadvantage, this investment. Look at the time I spend doing things. I mean, look at Selby’s book, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN. (Books mentioned are listed at the end of this article.) I fought for him, went to court for him for two years. In the end, we won. We pay him handsomely; his book still earns well. But I didn’t know we were going to win. He was very grateful.

McNAMARA: What is the best question you were ever asked about being a publisher?

BOYARS: "What does success mean?"

McNAMARA: Your answer?

BOYARS: "Survival."

Now I’m not so sure I would say that. That was many years ago. I think you should have financial success. I’m not commercial. I think it is a very good thing to be: I’m just not that good at it, and I’m very sorry. Once in a while I see that sort of success. But the list, which is very difficult, really doesn’t make much money.

I would like to sell the imprint, but there are no buyers. One very large book company offered to buy my "top 50 sellers." I said: "What about the others?" "Not interested," he said. I turned down the offer.

McNAMARA: But your list sustains itself.

BOYARS: Yes. Oh, it does. I’ve never remaindered, I don’t believe in it. We make a small profit.

Going to Stockholm.

BOYARS: I published [Elias] Canetti for ten years before he won the Nobel. We have published a number [six] of Nobel winners. Some of the time there is a change in sales, but most of the time not, because they are foreign writers. Faber [and Faber] have all the English and Irish Nobel Prize winners -- Golding, Seamus Heaney, and so on. We have the same number, but in translation.

McNAMARA: What is it like to go to Stockholm?

BOYARS: It’s wonderful. I went for Canetti. Now, Canetti was not a very nice man. When he won the Nobel he had been trying to get published elsewhere in England, but nobody wanted him. I was the only one; I wanted to publish him, and I had three books [KAFKA’S OTHER TRIAL, etc]. He was ashamed of us, I think. He didn’t want us to come.

It had really never occurred to us to go. Then, at Frankfurt [Book Fair] everybody said, "Ah, you’re going to Stockholm?" "Of course, you’re going to Stockholm?" Well, why not?

His main publisher was a German publisher, very good, and a good friend. The man who was running it then had trained with me as a very young man, and he said to me, "Why go to Stockholm? It’s not interesting. I’ve been to Stockholm." Very nicely, he sort of said, Don’t go to Stockholm as his English publisher.

But I wanted to go, and I told Arthur -- you’ve met Arthur, he’s a very sensible man -- and he said, "Fuck Canetti! How do we know we’re going to have another Nobel Prize winner, ever?" --But we did.

Arthur said to hell with him. He was absolutely right. We weren’t celebrating Canetti, we were celebrating ourselves. And it’s fun, and it’s very glamorous. We thought there was just the ceremony and the dinner -- it’s a terrific event, everybody in Sweden is involved. But there was much more to it. We went the week before -- there were parties galore, very nice parties. It was really great fun. I wrote it up for the Independent.

Then we went for Kenzabure Oe [HIROSHIMA NOTES, etc].

We also published others: Heinrich Böll, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon, Eugenio Montale, Oe, of course, and also Canetti. And we published every one of them before they won the Nobel Prize. Every one. And we nearly got it last year, because there were three Polish possibilities. The other two were a wonderful poet named Zbgniew Herbert, and Tadeusz Rozewicz, whom we publish [THE CARD INDEX, etc]. He’s also a playwright and short-story writer. [Wislava] Szymborska is very famous in Poland, and has a very nice nature, and cares about the world. And Rozewicz doesn’t have the large canvas. She has it. They chose the right poet. They are all very good.

I think my Danish writer, Henrik Stangerup, has a very good chance. You said you read BROTHER JACOB. We have a new novel coming out [THE ROAD TO LAGOA SANTA], an historical novel about a Danish paleontologist who for reasons of health had to leave Denmark, and in 1833 went to the jungles of Brazil. He discovered fossils and so on, did brilliant work on the theory of evolution, but could not go on, because of his strict religious principles. But he never returned to Europe. Stangerup is fascinated by this: What really happened to him? Why couldn’t he remain at home?

McNAMARA: You publish a number of translations. Is it a different thing to edit a translation than to edit a manuscript written in English? Would you describe the process itself, and the differences?

BOYARS: It’s completely different. Ideally, you have read the original, but very often, you haven’t. I don’t read Danish, though my father was of Danish origin. I speak French well, and can read it, and German. I can’t read Danish, Norwegian, Italian, or Spanish, but you know from the translation what’s wrong with it. I think it’s a question of experience. You look for traps. I have three languages; with three languages, you have to know something. With German, I can read Dutch, somewhat, or even Swedish and Norwegian, because they’re very similar. But I also know something about the structure of the language. You can find certain similarities. So: the Scandinavian languages have very small vocabularies and very long sentences. You break them up, and you make the language more sophisticated in English.

It’s completely different when the book’s already gone through the editing process. I publish the translation after an editor has done the work in the original. Now, with an English writer you ask for something different. My main question is: Is it clear? What do you intend to do, and have you achieved it? Can you shape it?

You have to choose the right moment; you have to be very tactful; and you have to do this because you want to do it. No personal vanity. It happens with many publishers that they feel they have to change things, even though this might destroy the artistic integrity of the work. That can be very arrogant, very, very disrespectful. I mean, if you don’t like something, say so. But not for the sake of your authority. You and the author have to remain harmonious.

McNAMARA: Have you ever gotten to the point where you wanted to publish the book but what the author wanted, finally, was completely unacceptable to you? Have you ever given up?

BOYARS: Not many times. I always say to the author, "I will argue till the cows come home, but it is your book." And once I have committed myself to something I will try to help it succeed.

On the whole, I will give in, but it isn’t automatic. And you do a lot of compromising: "You win this one, I win that."

Author and Publisher.

McNAMARA: What should an author expect from his publisher?

BOYARS: Loyalty. It’s very important.

You can go too far with your loyalty. You can, you know, bind yourself into a difficulty with an author, if you find his work is deteriorating, or if he wants more than you can give.

But you should have a loyalty to your author, which doesn’t mean you have to approve everything. But I do stand by the authors. I really do have an interest in their fame and well-being. And it’s good when you like the person. I like my authors.

They are the ones who create. I don’t, and I never will; all I do, after all, is facilitate, it really isn’t a creative act. I pledge my know-how and give them money to live. They’re the ones who take the real risks.

I think attention, listening, is part of it, too. Frederic Tuten [THE ADVENTURES OF MAO ON THE LONG MARCH], for instance, needs to have a publisher who listens to him. They need that -- it’s not like being a mother; it’s a completely different thing.

McNAMARA: And writers are not like children, although they’re often called that.

BOYARS: No! It’s just that you have to listen to people. I think that much of the trouble of the world is that nobody listens.


At the end of our third, last meeting, in her London office, as the day was ending, I was packing up the piles of papers and books she had given me, and we exchanged a few words about how long this conversation would be, and how I might cut it. I was hemming and hawing, when she said, suddenly:

BOYARS: Yes, I think one of the great difficulties about having been a publisher for such a long time -- I don’t know if it’s me, or if it’s the general standard of writing, now -- but it’s very difficult to get excited over so many of the books I see, so many of the manuscripts. And I have a horrible feeling it’s not only me.

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Part 1 / Part 2 / Endnotes


Books Mentioned in this Article Published by Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd:

Georges Bataille, STORY OF THE EYE
Samuel Beckett, (with John Calder)
William Burroughs, NAKED LUNCH (with John Calder)
----, M: Writings 1967-1972
----, X: Writings ‘79-’82
Warwick Collins, COMPUTER ONE
Mark Fyfe, ASHER
Carlo Gebler,
W9 AND OTHER LIVES (forthcoming)
----, SOUTH
----, THE GREEN PARADISE: Autobiography, Vols. 1-4
----, IN THE MIRROR OF THE PAST: Lectures and Addresses,
Henry Miller, TROPIC OF CANCER (with John Calder)
Eugenio Montale, POET IN OUR TIME
Terry Southern, BLUE MOVIE
Tadeusz Rozewicz, THE CARD INDEX and Other Plays
----, THE WITNESSES and Other Plays
----, THE WILLOW TREE (forthcoming)
Claude Simon, (with Calder)
Henrik Stangerup, BROTHER JACOB
----, TALIEN

Marion Boyars Publishers, 24 Lacy Road, London SW15 1NL
Distributed by Inbook/LPC, fax 1-800-334-3892.


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