A known unknown in the past future of publishing

In the 1970s the independent book publisher André Deutsch sold 40% of his eponymous company to Time-Life. Diana Athill, who edited for André Deutsch, wrote a wonderful memoir Stet: An Editor’s Life in which she described the experience as odd and comic: “They made no attempt to intervene in any of our publishing plans. And they drove André mad.”

Athill recalls an early meeting that purported to establish the mutual benefits of the deal. Puzzled by the corporation’s apparent altruism, she asked what was in it for them.

After a fractional pause, a gentle blast of pure waffle submerged the question, and I was left believing what in fact I continued to believe: that they didn’t know. Shrewd predatory calculations might be underlying all this, but it seemed unlikely. ‘Can it be,’ I asked André after the meeting, ‘that they are just silly?’ To which he answered crisply: ‘Yes.’ I think he had already started to wonder what on earth he was doing, but couldn’t see how to back out of it.

Despite their lack of interference, Time-Life naturally expected progress reports, every so often asking André Deutsch for details about, say, their publishing plans for the next five years. But given the unpredictable, even chaotic nature of independent book publishing – and maybe especially given the nature of the firm being asked, and of its owner – this request was also seen as a bit daft.

At a party in New York, Athill met the person who functioned as the link between the two companies, and she inferred that Time-Life just wanted some figures to satisfy their accounts people: the figures didn’t even have to make sense. Relaying this insight to André made him “even madder. It was their silliness that was getting to him, not their asking for information.” How then to respond? Athill quotes from accountant Philip Tammer’s letter to Time-Life:

What we will be publishing in five years’ time depends on what’s going on in the head of some unknown person probably sitting in a garret, and we don’t know the address of that garret.

I don’t know what Philip Tammer looks like – Athill describes him as “the dearest, kindest, most long-suffering, most upright and most loyal accountant anyone ever had” – but I can imagine his expression of consummate deadpan as he composed this reply. Ask a silly question…

Deutsch was, to his relief and delight, able to buy the shares back a couple of years after selling them. He talked about the experience, and a good deal more, in an interview with Naim Attallah.

8 Responses to A known unknown in the past future of publishing

  1. John Cowan says:

    My first lesson in workin’ for da man, back when I was seventeen, was discovering that da man often asks questions that have no answers, at least not in the form in which he puts them.

  2. I’m extremely glad not to have to worry about such things at present. Had a gizzard full with forward planning in the Civil Service. I wish could have gotten away with the response!

  3. Stan says:

    John: That’s true. Some of the best questions have no answers either — no straightforward ones, anyway — but so do some of the worst, and people who ask the latter are often unaware of the pointlessness of their pursuits.

    Jams: I know the feeling. There’s no end to the red tape in big business and organisations (be they governmental or otherwise), though it does help to explain their poignant, doomed obsession with efficiency and constant improvement.

  4. The problem is that we were often told to provide projections and financial plans based on almost non existent data ( a case of GI GO, or would be if the sparse information could be rolled up into a small piece of garbage!)

    The problem is that our information would then be set in stone despite the health warnings.

  5. […] at Sentence first | More Chronicle & Notices. This Fortnightly Review article is filed under the following […]

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh this triggered such a memory for me, Stan, I have to write about it.
    Also I am such a devotee of Athill and highly recommend her “Somewhere toward the End” which is a marvellously entertaining work.

  7. Stan says:

    WWW: Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll happily read more of Athill’s work: she’s very forthright and perceptive, and writes with real grace and wit. Regarding your own story, it underscores how much of ignorance is wilful, and thereby leads to or worsens problems unnecessarily. Humility and the ability to listen to people — to everyone — are invaluable traits, yet they seem to be effectively absent in many cases.

  8. […] For another anecdote from Athill’s marvellous memoir, see this earlier post. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: