LONDON

A PUBLISHER writes to The New Statesman: "The Halcyon days are over, and the boom in books, which already looked a little shaky last Christmas, was dealt a major blow by the events of the winter, and does not show any signs of recovering this summer. Most booksellers complain that their stocks are dangerously high, and some even go so far as to say that they have never been offered so many new books as during the last few months. They are cutting down orders right and left."

A publisher writes to The Spectator: "I found myself wondering aloud where 'literature' had got to. Almost every book seemed to deal with some more or less specialized subject."

Another publisher writes: "These are hard times for authors . . . new authors, unless they are promising enough to elbow their established competitors aside, are denied publication."

A chorus of woe prompted by the present recession? No, all these remarks were made in 1948. Publishers are like farmers. When times are good, as spectacularly they were for British publishers after 1974 when the pound was weakest abroad, it's difficult for them to admit it. In bad times, the chorus of woe becomes deafening, and it has certainly been so here for over a year now. Storm signals were raised in the autumn of 1979 when Collins and Penguin, two of Britain's biggest and most successful publishing groups, announced catastrophic results. These were only partly to do with the devastating impact that the strength of sterling was having on British book exports, which traditionally account for around 40 percent of publishers' total turnover here. Throughout 1980 one saw publisher after publisher cutting back on his lists, taking drastic action to try to ensure a healthy cash flow in the face of the crippling interest rates that Americans are now enjoying, and swinging the axe of redundancy with a vengeance.

Looking at the blitzed scene now in the spring of 1981, and hoping that the worst is over for publishing, as Mrs. Thatcher and her chancellor of the exchequer claim it is over for the country, it seems that not a single publishing group of consequence escaped this process. It has meant that a tragically high proportion of young people in publishing have lost their jobs, and may never find jobs again in publishing, because it seems certain that the trade will be permanently leaner in consequence. It has been bad news in the short term for authors, with many publishers canceling contracts, and even more books being postponed for at least a season.

It seems a very short time since publishing worked its way through the cycle of recession in 1974-75, and then as now we saw a frantic appetite on the part of publishers for ready-made best sellers. Good, well-crafted work that in normal times can be relied on as a steady seller becomes "marginal" and to be avoided! Where are the best sellers to come from? No one can wave a magic wand over books which haven't that potential simply by paying ever larger sums for them. Thus for a time the market for writers is artificially constrained, and this is, I suspect, as true of New York as it has been of London in the past year. A very small number of books command huge prices and have reposed in them huge hopes, to the detriment of a wide range of perfectly publishable books, many of course by new writers looking for their first opportunity in the public eye, with more modest but still profitable potential. That is what is hurting writers at present.

We have here a public library system of which we are rightly proud, and the purchasing budgets of libraries across the country have been savagely reduced by the public spending cuts under the present government. Thus, the availability of books through that system to the general public is affected. On the face of it this sharpens the reader's appetite to spend his own money in the bookshops, but of course disposable income in general is much reduced, and the book trade now accepts that the domestic as well as the export market has taken a tremendous beating in the past year. We hope that the renewed strength of the dollar, which in all sorts of ways is the best news on the economic front for us for some time, will give us an edge again abroad. But it remains to be seen whether in the '80s the British habit of buying hardback books across the counter has been permanently affected. I don't believe that in the long run there'll be anything other than a healthy growth in the sale of paperbacks. But it has been a shock to authors, publishers and booksellers to find that the received wisdom of the '30s, when publishing did comparatively well in the Depression, has not worked in the recession of the early '80s.

It is to be hoped that the most positive consequence of this will be that we have seen the end of the madness of pumping more and more titles each year into a static retail trade. there are perhaps 350 mainstream publishers in Britain, producing in 1980 the staggering total of over 50,000 new titles. The bookshops, and particularly the small bookshops that have always been an attractive feature of the literary scene in Britain, simply can't cope with that output. Particularly when, as in the American market, there is the enormously wasteful duplication of new books in such areas as cookery, gardening, health, beauty, yoga and other areas of self-help. Admittedly, they provide a hugh choice for the consumer, but at what a price to the trade?

I believe that by the end of this decade there will be fewer separate publishing houses in London, and that those which flourish will concentrate on publishing fewer titles, choosing each book with greater care, avoiding duplication throughout the trade, reviving the editing skills for which London used to be noted, and in particular paying much more attention to the promotion and marketing of each title. British publishing is woefully short of working capital, and for a number of years now the foremost New York publishers have made a point of promoting their editorial skills at the expense of the reputation of the British houses. There is no doubt that creative editing is infinitely less prized in London than it used to be. This balance must be redressed, and when the upturn in the economy arrives, we must attract back to publishing a new generation of talented young men and women.

Good publishing depends on confident judgments. When those judgments are dominated by excessive pessimism, they tend also to be bad judgments. There are more professional acquaintances here than I care to think about whom I'll cross the road to avoid these days because I suppose I've had a bellyful of jeremiads. It's my job to do my best to keep my authors happy, and being a natural optimist I insist on turning the tale of the emperor's new clothes upside down and seeing the silver lining to the dark cloud on which Mrs. Thatcher is sitting, even if no one else can see it. d

A very bright and robust Australian called Robert McKay was brought over by the Macmillan Publishing Group to London last year to sort out its problems. He told me a month or so ago about the painful business of cutting budgets, cutting costs, cutting staff. But he said that if one morning you looked at yourself in the shaving mirror and agreed with yourself that the exercise had been rigorously conducted, and that there wasn't much more in the way of economies that could be affected, then the only thing left was to be creative. That had clearly cheered him up, and it cheered me up, too.