This summer saw the publication of The Seven Lives of John Murray, Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of that great independent publishing house. It’s a terrific read all round – of which more below – but something particular that struck me was its description of a publishing model common during the late 18th century, when the first John Murray arrived in London and started his business.
Most likely, you’d start by opening a bookshop. With this as your base, you’d then begin to acquire copyrights and print books, either by yourself or with other publishers, each taking a percentage share in the project. You’d sell these through your own shop, and at a discount to other shops – meanwhile buying their books to sell yourself. The result was that the industry across London functioned as a kind of loose cooperative, with shops selling their own books and each other’s.
The back and forth of stock apparently meant that money rarely changed hands between the booksellers: instead, a web of IOUs and credit notes would cancel each other out. The money came in from the customers nonetheless.
Today, as the available markets continue to shrink for small publishers, and with all the new tools available with which small businesses can build brands and communities, I’m wondering whether this might not be a model that small publishers could return to, at least in part.
For a bookseller-publisher, costs can be spread across both sides of the business: premises serving as retail outlet, event space, and office; stockroom or shopfloor staff fulfilling web & mail orders in quiet moments; brand awareness campaigns benefiting both sides of the business.
The Seven Lives of Juhn Murray
John Murray, one of the oldest, greatest independent publishers was finally sold in 2002, after 234 years of trading. Humphrey Carpenter was hired to produce a definitive biography of the house, published this year in paperback.
Although Carpenter passed away before finishing the book, it’s a very entertaining and informative read that covers the various Murrays’ dealings with Jane Austen, Byron, Charles Darwin, and countless other authors, as well as showing the progression from those early days of “gentleman” publishing to today’s less forgiving commercial environment.
Many publishers, like Melville House or Persephone Books, do have a dedicated retail space but some only use this to sell their own titles, or only a very limited range, which effectively means that the retail space is likely to be preaching to the choir, rather than making new converts – it certainly does nothing to spread risk. The advantage of a full-fledged bookshop is that it enables publishers to present their titles in the context of a fuller contemporary range, and to promote them to casual browsers and customers. The only examples of this full-fledged bookshop/publisher that I can think of off the top of my head are the aforementioned Melville House, and City Lights in San Francisco, but I’m sure TFD readers can think of plenty more.
Combining bookselling and publishing might help with promoting and positioning the books, and the two complementary businesses, if run well, can provide each other with some kind of backup, but there are obviously much higher set-up costs involved if you’re going to launch a new list as well as stocking and staffing a bookshop.
It’s interesting therefore to read of the collaboration between Big Green Bookshop in London and Gallic Books. This experimental project sees Big Green Bookshop carry Gallic stock in prominent areas of the shop, in return for which they receive better terms, as well as additional custom as fulfillers of Gallic’s mail order business. They’ll also be holding regular events for Gallic Books, and the two companies’ websites are well linked. The best part is that it doesn’t involve price promotions: this isn’t about getting the books out cheaper than the other guy, it’s a proper, sustainable program to build audience for both publisher and bookseller.
The twinning of Big Green and Gallic Books seems to me like a fantastic way for both bookseller and publisher to reach new audiences, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it works out for them as they experiment with ideas which, while they might seem new, hark back to an era when John Murray I was urgently reissuing editions of Rousseau, hoping to capitalise on news of the French Revolution.