A CONVERSATION WITH MARION BOYARS
Buying Rights. Selling Books. (cont)
McNAMARA: In America, the independent-bookstore structure is so
BOYARS: Its even worse here, if you want to know.
Theres 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 governments 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, Waterstones and Dillons, 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
isnt that every book is sold at a discount, its 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. Its the
wrong analogy, from my point of view, unless youre interested in Jeffrey Archer or
Patricia Cornwell, lets say; then, yes: they are the cost of three movies.
BOYARS: Well, I dont think its the price, I think
its 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
novelists 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: Its 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 lifetimes work, to become a writer. You
dont treat people like that, you dont!" And they might have kept the
books, Im sure I would have prevailed. You have to be concerned about other
peoples feelings. Subsequently, Barnes and Noble advertised the book in its
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 mustnt cut yourself off from the market.
Im very positive about the internet, electronic bookselling and so on. I can see
theres 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
theyre 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 dont 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, its 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, youre doing a marvelous job." He said, "Youd welcome a
proper wholesaler?" "Very much," I said. But they couldnt make it.
The chains -- Dillons, Waterstones -- 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
cant invest. Each county has its central library. They buy one book -- one each of
any title -- for the whole county; and youll 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 dont
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 whats 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 Im 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: Ive got to exploit them, Ive
got to. I dont forget a book. I think thats why authors like a smaller
publisher, whos invested a life into them.
Its an advantage and a disadvantage, this investment. Look at the time I spend
doing things. I mean, look at Selbys 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 didnt 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?
Now Im not so sure I would say that. That was many years ago. I think you should
have financial success. Im not commercial. I think it is a very good thing to be:
Im just not that good at it, and Im very sorry. Once in a while I see that
sort of success. But the list, which is very difficult, really doesnt make much
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. Ive never remaindered, I
dont 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: Its 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 [KAFKAS OTHER TRIAL, etc]. He was ashamed of us, I
think. He didnt want us to come.
It had really never occurred to us to go. Then, at Frankfurt [Book Fair] everybody
said, "Ah, youre going to Stockholm?" "Of course, youre 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? Its not interesting. Ive been to Stockholm." Very
nicely, he sort of said, Dont go to Stockholm as his English publisher.
But I wanted to go, and I told Arthur -- youve met Arthur, hes a very
sensible man -- and he said, "Fuck Canetti! How do we know were going to have
another Nobel Prize winner, ever?" --But we did.
Arthur said to hell with him. He was absolutely right. We werent celebrating
Canetti, we were celebrating ourselves. And its fun, and its very glamorous.
We thought there was just the ceremony and the dinner -- its 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
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]. Hes
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 doesnt 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 couldnt 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: Its completely different. Ideally, you have read
the original, but very often, you havent. I dont read Danish, though my father
was of Danish origin. I speak French well, and can read it, and German. I cant read
Danish, Norwegian, Italian, or Spanish, but you know from the translation whats
wrong with it. I think its 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 theyre 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
Its completely different when the books 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
dont 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 isnt 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. Its 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 doesnt 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 its good when you like the person. I like my authors.
They are the ones who create. I dont, and I never will; all I do, after all, is
facilitate, it really isnt a creative act. I pledge my know-how and give them money
to live. Theyre 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 -- its not like being a mother; its a
completely different thing.
McNAMARA: And writers are not like children, although
theyre often called that.
BOYARS: No! Its 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 dont know if its me, or if
its the general standard of writing, now -- but its very difficult to get
excited over so many of the books I see, so many of the manuscripts. And I have a horrible
feeling its not only me.
/ 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)
Heinrich Böll, ABSENT WITHOUT LEAVE
----, BILLIARDS AT HALF-PAST NINE
----, THE CLOWN
William Burroughs, NAKED LUNCH (with John Calder)
John Cage, EMPTY WORDS
----, FOR THE BIRDS
----, M: Writings 1967-1972
----, X: Writings 79-82
----, A YEAR FROM MONDAY
Elias Canetti, KAFKAS OTHER TRIAL
----, THE VOICES OF MARRAKESH
----, THE NUMBERED
Warwick Collins, COMPUTER ONE
Mark Fyfe, ASHER
Carlo Gebler, W9 AND OTHER LIVES (forthcoming)
Julian Green, THE DISTANT LANDS
----, THE STARS OF THE SOUTH
----, THE APPRENTICE WRITER
----, THE GREEN PARADISE: Autobiography, Vols. 1-4
Ivan Illich, MEDICAL NEMESIS
----, DESCHOOLING SOCIETY
----, SHADOW WORKS
----, IN THE MIRROR OF THE PAST: Lectures and Addresses, 1987-1990
Ken Kesey, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST
Julia Kristeva, ABOUT CHINESE WOMEN
Henry Miller, TROPIC OF CANCER (with John Calder)
Eugenio Montale, POET IN OUR TIME
Terry Southern, BLUE MOVIE
Tim OBrien, IF I DIE IN A COMBAT ZONE
----, NORTHERN LIGHTS
Kenzabure Oe, HIROSHIMA NOTES
----, NIP THE BUDS, SHOOT THE KIDS
----, TEACH US TO OUTGROW OUR MADNESS
Michael Ondaatje, COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER
----, RAT JELLY
----,THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BILLY THE KID
Tadeusz Rozewicz, THE CARD INDEX and Other Plays
----, MARIAGE BLANC and THE HUNGER ARTIST DISAPPEARS
----, THE WITNESSES and Other Plays
Hubert Selby, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN
----, THE WILLOW TREE (forthcoming)
Claude Simon, (with Calder)
Henrik Stangerup, BROTHER JACOB
----, THE ROAD TO LAGOA SANTA
Frederic Tuten, THE ADVENTURES OF MAO ON THE LONG MARCH
----, TINTIN IN THE NEW WORLD
----, VAN GOGHS BAD CAFE
Marion Boyars Publishers, 24 Lacy Road, London SW15 1NL
Distributed by Inbook/LPC, fax 1-800-334-3892.