The Radiance of Banality: Predatory Publishers in the UK (Part One) – Henry Coburn | Guest Post

A gonzo voyage through the ferocious realm of predatory ‘hybrid’ publishers and their mutant product.


It is difficult, and probably unnecessary, to describe the existential panic that descends on you once you are cast loose from university to fend for yourself in the adult world. In my case, the general misery that descends with the realisation that you are going to have to be responsible for your own fuck-ups from now one was compounded with a series of personal crises. In a pinch, I accepted a job offer from a friend to be a housekeeper in Colorado for a couple of months, and then spent the rest of the year Kerouacking about the Americas, taking a sabbatical from reality and generally putting off sorting my life out for a little while. I applied for a few postgrad places but didn’t get close to getting in anywhere thanks to my fluffed Finals results, and returned to the UK in the Summer of 2017 to try and blaze some path as a freelance journalist/editorialist/content writer/lion-tamer/any old busybody in the London literary scene, more as a default than a last resort.

I found a place in Poplar with a friend from college who was starting out at Morgan Stanley and just wanted somewhere proximate to Canary Wharf. By the time I moved from my family home in Cambridge to the Big Smoke, I still had not found a proper job, but had jotted down a per diem on the back of a pub napkin for online copywriting work that might just allow me to meet rent, with a retail estimate for each of my vital organs on the back as a fall-back option. Once we moved in I strove to meet this quota, while at the same time writing and applying for all manner of jobs in the Public Sector, Civil Service and Foreign Office streams, editorial internships and – scraping the bottom of the capacious barrel that are the internet job boards – unpaid positions as the office bitch at a variety of faceless and acronymic consultancies in Mayfair.

In between long mornings, which I spent in the flat earning rent by writing online content for anyone with a keyboard and a brand name, my pain and sweat was rewarded mostly with silence, or else a scant few interviews, promptly followed by silence. A couple of family friends who were variously authors, authors’ agents or media personnel had directed me towards The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and by now I had it vaguely in mind that I wanted to enter into publishing as a kind of natural application of an otherwise useless degree in English Literature. However, these kind of entry-level jobs were extremely few and far between, competitive, and anyway were mostly being earmarked for BAME schemes in order to rectify the grotesque racial imbalance under which the industry was labouring – and so I never heard back from a single one.

Horrifying, though the moment of graduation is, it can only be the vaguest premonition of the kind of hideous malaise that can descend on an idle early-20-something at rest in a large city. One finds oneself wandering the streets for lack of anything better to do, wondering vaguely whether the job of the cashier who scans your microwave pizzas might be coming up for grabs in the near future, or else just lurching about the city, eyeing the homeless drunks in Poplar with a kind of dreadful foreboding. I spent long periods of time waiting in line at the Jobcentre feeling mildly that my Cambridge degree was not the passport to instantaneous success that I might have hoped.

My entry into publishing came rather unexpectedly and, at least it seemed at first, miraculously. Four months of self-un-employment after first having moved to London, I had planned a return to Cambridge to attend the memorial service of a school friend who had died suddenly in a mountaineering accident the previous year, and this happened to coincide with an interview I had been offered at a Cambridge-based publishing house of which I had never heard, and am contractually obliged not to name at present (besides which, I have no wish to give them free press, positive or otherwise). I only hope that you have never heard of them either.

I had applied to many publishers and, knowing that such entry-level positions are particularly competitive, I was not surprised that I never even got an interview. I was offered many such interviews for editorial assistantships at law firms and admin offices, which I more or less considered as fluff to be attended if nothing else better was on the horizon, and which normally culminated in awkward exchanged across a long table at which I gradually persuaded myself that the job was not worth taking. Since this clearly was not an offer from the former, I took it as the second and didn’t get my hopes up – but accepted the interview anyway, seeing as I was in the area.

I attended the service on the Tuesday and drove up the A10 the next morning to an industrial estate to which I had been directed, although I noted on their website that the publishing house was based in London. I had no frame of reference for what the offices of an international publisher should look like, though I was a tad taken aback by the low-slung group of offices in the middle of a vast and desolate agricultural wasteland that I found upon my arrival, after two wrong turns that put me about ten minutes late. I knocked at the door in the howling October wind and was received after a short interval by a gruff woman with obviously zero interest in who I was here to see or what for, and ushered through to an empty and abandoned office suite with daddy-long-legs in all four corners, and not much else in between. The interview was short and superficial, and, to my immense relief, when I returned to London I found a job offer waiting in my voicemail. 

Beggars can’t be choosers. At this point, I would have accepted an opening on a park bench. As it transpired, while the personnel of the publishing house (the House as I will hereon refer to it) was based in Cambridge, and more or less the entirety of their printing, design, marketing and editorial was based there, they were looking for someone to hold down the fort in their London office. In the interview, they were at pains to describe the glamour of working in the city and the strict necessity of my role in meeting London-based authors and holding their hands while their books were produced and marketed. In addition to this, I would be given my own pot of authors to cultivate, nurture to fruition and, so I thought, mould into my own beau ideal of artistry in this challenging market. I think I had something approaching Ezra Pound and TS Eliot in mind – I was a starry-eyed graduate, after all. My interviewers were also at pains to tout their House’s enlightened and egalitarian ‘hybrid’ model of publishing, in which the authors and publishers shared the financial demands of a full print run by a reasonable contribution from the authors side – ‘to reflect the unpredictable market potential of debut writers and the inherent risk of publication costs in the current climate’. It was most definitely not the same thing as a vanity publisher, which gets all its funds from so-called ‘authors’ funding their own print run with absolutely no expectation of public interest. No, this was different entirely – both sides were putting in here.

I lived at my home in Cambridge for two weeks while I was trained in their local office. The industrial estate housed a couple of offices little better than extended portacabins, adorned with remaindered copy and promotional material for titles and designs that I couldn’t imagine anyone ever wanting to buy. I was placed in the marketing department to get some idea of how books were marketed in the modern industry. I had never had a paid job before and so had no frame of reference for what I could reasonably expect, so this seemed fair enough. I was just happy to have a salary and a position in the industry that I had wanted to enter, however obliquely, but it did not take long before it became apparent to even the most indifferent perspectives that something about the House’s operation did not add up.

So that I might be prepared for one-on-one meetings with clients (“Authors, you mean?”), the House editor walked me through a copy of a standard contract that was sent out to prospective authors, explaining the vagaries of the wording and how they did not explicitly promise certain things that might, I thought, be reasonably expected – monthly royalty statements, PR representation or guarantee of a certain sales figures, etc. I was also handed a document entitled How to Answer Difficult Questions from Authors containing such categories as Why isn’t my book for sale anywhere? and I want to see a picture of all my books that have been printed NOW. After a short stay with the House’s editorial department – a roomful of graduates not unlike myself– it became clear that they were expected to send a copy of this contract to any manuscript submissions that were not obviously racist or containing scenes of explicit sexual violence. Many in fact did, and we received a high volume of submissions from incumbent mental patients and isolated religious fanatics, many of whom received offers. These contracts were printed on high-grain notarised paper headed with the House logo and accompanied with a letter to the author describing how the Board of Editors ‘had reviewed their submission and applauded it for its bold and characterful writing’ and were prepared to offer a contract for publication – with the proviso of a contribution between £1,900 – 5,000 from the author.

As a newly-qualified Marketing Coordinator, I was given 263 such authors for my own personal responsibility to begin with, each of whom had seen publication over the last few years. They had each usually experienced no end of grief through the production and editorial processes, so by the time they got to us they were impatient, expectant and subsequently a very low tolerance for any further bullshit. For the first month, I got twenty more authors with a greater number slated for release each subsequent month, despite the insuperable backlogs of corrections, proof edits, AI-approval and all the other minutiae of admin that came with every publication. In general, it was all I could do to cope with the new authors coming out each month in my working hours. Each roll-out consisted of making a list of nearby bookshops, media outlets, schools, libraries and anywhere else nearby, usually filched from a previous case in the same area, writing up a press release, sending them out by email and being unanimously told to fuck off by everyone that I contacted. After that, the author’s files were more-or-less forgotten about as the next month’s-load came flooding in, and I didn’t have much time for much more than replying to old authors’ emails with a template excuse saying that marketing was a continuous process and that Rome was not built in a day. In reality, it took about two weeks for a book to go from new release to cold product.

The House’s standing reputation for abysmal product meant that no buyer or media channel who knew what quality was could possibly take our pitches seriously, and so we were understandably ignored. This is not to say that the novels/memoirs or the ideas behind them necessarily terrible – just that the books, the physical product, their covers and illustrations and un-spellchecked typefaces and ruinous formatting were. They were an embarrassment for everyone – even their creators. We just didn’t have time to do any better.

The problem was that the editorial team were clearly being told to offer as many contracts as possible, and either didn’t know or didn’t care that the product they were so shoddily crafting was piling up straight into a wall like traffic in a pile-up. They were told this to make money. They could have made less – they should have made less, and our team might actually have had a chance to help fewer authors actually make it – but, clearly, there is no incentive for humanity in this climate. As for me – I was part of a totally superfluous marketing entity whose existence was contractually obligated, but which served no actual function in the main operation of the House of grabbing as much money as physically possible with the minimum possible output of quality.

All printing was run in-house (or in-cabin, anyway) in a noisy allotment next to the warehouse. Despite the House’s promises, all published works were print-on-demand, and since there was rarely any demand, printing was mostly occupied filling the requisite ten complimentary copies for all the hundreds of authors coming out in any given month. The typical offer for a new author suggested an initial print run of ‘up to 2,000 copies’, in the same way you could presumably market custard as being able to remove ‘up to 99% of bacteria’ from a kitchen surface. While technically true, in reality what the House banked on clients not realising was that ‘up to 2,000 copies’ could be limited to the ten complimentary copies that they received for themselves, friends and family.

It was apparently the House’s policy to outsource all of their book’s graphic design and production to Pakistan – including cover design, graphic, illustration and all the laborious spellchecking and proofreading, which was surprising if not decidedly unwise, since English was without exception the second language of every one of the design house’s employees. Every publication had at least one glaring typo still in the finished manuscript, and part of my duty was to mop up the belated dismay of authors finding errors in their own books. We once printed one author’s entire book inside the cover of another book with a similar name. I once had a kind, middle-aged author burst into tears in front of me upon being presented with finished illustrations for her book of modernised Greek mythology that were so tacky, so hopelessly lazily clip-art-photoshopped, so unspeakably foul, that she burst into tears. But it was published anyway, and laughed out of the shop everywhere from Exeter to Bristol.

In operating as it did, the House had placed every one of its employees in an impossible position, and its authors in a doomed and humiliating one, and didn’t much care so long as new contracts were being returned with a re-mortgage check attached to it with a paper clip. Most sales came either online or from authors becoming so fed up with our lack of progress that they bought copies of their own book (whose discount the House had happily included in their contract for this exact purpose) in a doomed attempt to shift them themselves.

At the time I joined, there were at least two lawsuits from unhappy authors pending against the House, which were of course doomed to failure thanks to the vagueness of the initial contract and the House’s legal muster. I do not believe the House contract told any explicit lies to get clients to sign, only loose disingenuities. I was told to tell authors that their contribution costs covered a third of the cost of a print run, with the other two thirds coming from us. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that, based on this claim, the House would have to recoup at least some of that investment after publication to break even, protected from risk or not – but the sales we made didn’t come close to covering the smallest fraction of that supposed cost. I supposed, as one would, that most of the sales happened online now through Amazon and the like, and therefore bypassed our roles in active marketing, but the proof was there in black-and-white in the end-of-year sales reports in January.

Even the handful of our authors who had mustered sales through E-List personal celebrity, Succès de scandale or proactive campaigning had barely scraped back their initial contribution. The others, almost to a man, learned that in that period they had garnered exactly £0.00 towards recouping their investment, and some were actually in debt thanks to purchasing their own books from us to replace those complimentary copies that never arrived.

The London Office, as I saw once I moved there, was an empty broom closet with no windows on a high floor of a tower building – essentially a mail address and the sole purpose was to occupy the minimum amount of physical space to allow the House to legally represent itself as stationed in a fashionable and corporate area (which, I imagine, to the untrained eye might just as well be Bloomsbury). All incoming mail and manuscripts were redirected straight to the Cambridge office in an industrial estate. From then on, the House sent me any potential signees who had expressed misgivings. It was always deeply embarrassing to receive them into a tiny office with no decoration and having to obliquely persuade them that the House was not a sham. Many times, the authors had come no small distance to finally meet the editorial powerhouse who had taken a shine to their brilliance, only to meet me and me alone in a bare, unfurnished cupboard and explain that I hadn’t read their work, but that they should certainly feel safe giving us money to publish it.

It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so absurd and pathetically unfair to both me and them. But I needed a job – and if it hadn’t been for me, not a single person from the House would have come down. The least I could do was to cushion the blow, and the bulk of my role was essentially acting as an intermediary between expectation and reality. On several occasions that I could name, the clients were bleary and confused pensioners who were forced to dip into savings for maintenance money they really couldn’t spare, all with the same conception of instant success and glory. One such author had to put off his roof getting fixed to find the money, and emailed me every day describing the white vintage Jag on which he was anticipating spending his first royalty check. The poor fools simply had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Neither of us had, and for both of us it was only the beginning.

[We will have part two of this guest post later this week.]


Henry CoburnBIO

Henry Coburn is a writer and reviewer living in London. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2016 and currently writes and blogs about contemporary literature and the publishing scene. His previous writing credits include three plays written for the ADC Theatre and Marlowe Society, journalism, radio and TV hosting. He currently writes reviews for books on the blog Page Burner and for film with Seventh Reel.

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