by Roderick Conway Morris

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Proust & Co

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 30 October 1992
Marcel Proust



With the economy suffering a severe cold, British book publishing seems to have contracted full-blown bubonic plague. A literary agent tells me that the editors at one of London's largest publishing houses had been ordered not to buy any new titles for three months 'and to make sure all the lights were turned off every time they left their offices.' Advances to most authors have been slashed, and even writers who have published five or six titles are having their latest offerings unceremoniously rejected by their (erstwhile) friendly publishers.

With the prospects of early recovery remote, is there a viable alternative to commercial publishers for writers to whom the possibility of posthumous fame holds limited appeal?

One solution is to set up your own publishing company. J. L. Carr, who has consistently produced some of the most original and amusing fiction of the last 25 years, did this long ago. Carr's Quince Tree Press (as it is now called),brings outeditions of 'standard poets, idiosyncratic maps and unlikely dictionaries,' along with his own novels, which have been regularly issued in paperback by Penguin and others and have often won or been nominated for literary prizes.

A less radical course is to venture into the world of vanity publishing. Conventional wisdom dictates that any proper self-respecting author would rather die than resort to this - a position tacitly endorsed by Britain's 108-year-old writer's union, the Society of Authors, which will not accept a new member on the basis of a work to which the author has made any financial contribution.

Some, including members of the society, have recently broken ranks. One such is Frances Thomas. Already the author of two novels and half a dozen children's books, she was working on a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, when her publishers (the wimps) got cold feet about the project. Thomas decided to go ahead anyway and round up the cash to publish it herself. She chose the Self-Publishing Associationon the basis, she said, that they seemed a cut above the general run of vanity publishers and 'appeared to take a genuine pride in the product - which did indeed turn out to be so.'

Contrary to immutable literary lore that such books are never reviewed, Thomas's 'Christina Rossetti' received glowing notices and ample praise for the attractiveness and quality of its production, and it has been selling steadily. Thomas did take the trouble to writeletters to literary editors when the review copies went out, and whether this was the key to softening their flinty hearts, some certainly seem to have responded.

'If we're asked about going to vanity publishers,' Mark Le Fanu, the general secretary of the Society of Authors, said at their London headquarters, 'Our gut reaction, is still: Don't. There are lots of sharks in that pond, and it's an area fraught with difficulties. If, however, it's a highly specialized book, or say a book of local interest and you can see a market for it I might say: What about publishing it yourself? This can even be quite lucrative. There are various guidebooks that tell you how to go about it. Though, if it's a novel, self-publishing is out.'

Eric Lane, the director of Dedalus,a sparky and successful small (non-vanity) publisher, agreed that self-publishing was preferable to paying a vanity publisher: 'Not only will you get a greater level of satisfaction, but it should certainly be a lot cheaper.' Lane gave the figure of around £3,000 (about $4,800) as the kind of budget he wouldhave for a 2,000-print run of a 224-page, unillustrated book - half, or less, the sums currently charged by vanity publishers (and perhaps more like a third of the money asked by sharper operators).

How many masterpieces have seen the light of day because the author was able and prepared to put his money as well as his soul into the enterprise? Not many, to be sure.

On the other hand, there was that aspiring, middle-aged French writer who, in 1913, after several rejections in desperation offered to pay a publisher to bring his book out. The publisher agreed and had it printed - without even reading the manuscript. The book? The first volume of 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,' by Marcel Proust.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023