Some notes on orthodoxy

A very happy New Year to all Calderonia’s subscribers, followers, and casual viewers! (If you are one of the latter, please consider subscribing top right.)

This is ‘the year’… Following an almost complete absence of response to my last reminders to half a dozen publishers in December, I have decided to go it alone. I intend to publish George Calderon: Edwardian Genius in a limited hardback edition on 4 June 2018, the anniversary of George Calderon’s death at Gallipoli. The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of George’s birth is 2 December 2018, when we shall have another selling blitz. I aim to more or less sell out the hardback by this time next year, then transfer to Kindle and Amazon Paperback.

The imprint I’ll use will be my old Anglo-Russian one, ‘Sam&Sam’, which has produced about thirty titles here and there in the last forty years. The printers will be the best in the business, Clays of St Ives. I will explain the origins of the name Sam&Sam in a future post: believe it or not, it involves a fictitious Elizabethan poet…

The not so good news, for potential purchasers, is that the book will cost £30. Jenny Uglow’s beautiful Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (which I will review next time) costs only £25, as does Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life (also printed by Clays), and someone complained to me recently about paying £30 for a new biography (mind you, in paperback). But I feel that the job we make of this book should be worth £30 and it has to do better than break even if I am going to remunerate a smidgeon of my own labour. Moreover, Helen Smith’s biography of Edward Garnett just off the presses, The Uncommon Reader, which is very comparable in length etc to mine, is priced at £30. I would be very interested to hear subscribers’ reactions to this price, and whether they feel it should include postage if they are not be put off even more from buying the book.

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A Christmas-card correspondent who follows Calderonia wrote that to judge from my blog I had done nothing all last year except look for a publisher. Well, that’s not quite true; for instance, I also created the book of John Polkinghorne’s and my conversations, which is now going the rounds of publishers who have dealt with John before. And, of course, I had to sort the Permissions for the biography, compose the Afterword, the Acknowledgements, the Bibliography, rewrite the Introduction for the umpteenth time, add some new material, check and re-check the body of the text…

But, yes, it has been a year to the week since I opened my campaign to find a commercial publisher, and a hell of a lot of time, energy and nervous fibre has gone into it. Here are the results:

Publishers approached: 47
Firm acceptances received: 2
Rejections received: 18
No responses received: 27

As I have said before, I suppose that to have received two offers from publishers is not bad. It was unfortunate that these offers contained very deleterious downsides and I just had to let them go. Nevertheless, I don’t think the year-long exercise was a waste of time, as I have learned an enormous amount about the realities of publishing at the moment.

The irony, though, is that I have already decided I am never going to use that knowledge, because I am adamant that I am never going this way again. I am not going to go to publishers in future, they are going to have to come to me. This resolution is reinforced by the knowledge that in all the previous cases of commercial publishers publishing my books, I have had some kind of personal contact there first, they have turned to me for the books, and in all of those books not an iota was changed by editors.

Conversely, the kind of publishers I have tangled with over the past year talk about refashioning and rewriting your book (‘editing’) before they have even read it all. It is the same with agents: they immediately tell you how they are going to ‘reconfigure’ your book to ‘position it in the market’. These editors and agents fancy themselves as writers. When I told a writer friend that I had decided to bring out the book myself, he said he was glad because he was sure I would have ‘fallen out’, as he put it, with a commercial publisher, ‘before you had got very far’. That perhaps suggests I am thin-skinned — some publishers and ‘editors’ would doubtless claim so — but I don’t think I am; I think I can truthfully say I have gritted my teeth and borne a lot of …. from people in academe, publishing and the theatre in my time.

The dark side of the year’s experience has been the arrogance, rudeness and sheer inanity of those publishers who have, or more often have not, responded to my exceedingly carefully researched and crafted approaches. Step forward in particular two grey-suited Editorial Directors, one in Cambridge and one in Oxford. The only reason I have not sent them the floral orange card (see my post of 30 November) is that I have only one of it. I know they are literally men in grey suits, because I have seen a video and photographs of them on the Web!

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Obviously, I want to move on as fast as possible. Now is the time, however, to honour the pledge in my post of 30 September 2017 to respond to John Dewey’s well-argued views on the subject. Please refer to John Dewey’s comment of January 2017 and click on the link there to access John’s essay on the Brimstone Press blog. Click here to access George Orwell’s original preface to Animal Farm, which deals with a particular form of publishing orthodoxy in Orwell’s day and which John quotes.

When I set out to find a commercial publisher this time last year, I certainly admitted to  myself that I was unlikely to succeed because the ‘bottom line’, the litmus test, was going to be: can it sell 6000 copies? Publishers have repeatedly quoted this figure to me in the past five years. Well, actually, I have always believed they could sell 6000 copies if they marketed it properly. The reason I believed it, was that I thought the book’s story and substance could catch the imaginations of people who can read.

However, really I knew they would tell me they couldn’t sell anywhere near 6000 copies. Why did I know this? Because I sensed deep down that publishers are process-driven people, not risk-takers. This has been borne out by all my experience over the past year. They just want to feel they are in sole control of their ‘process’, as though they were some kind of officials, or cultural civil servants. Hence they create Procrustean beds of ‘series’ that a book can’t, or ‘has to’, fit into, and refer to books as ‘units’. They set up interminable processes of ‘refereeing’ by people who have a vested interest in trashing perceived rivals. There is something Gogolian about publishing today: hardly any of it appears to operate in real time, but in a special chaotic time not corresponding to any known to science or philosophy. I know someone for whom the refereeing and rewriting process ran into the ground after eighteen months, but three years later he was staggered to receive a letter offering him a contract. Most publishing is bureaucratic.

I think John Dewey will agree, however, that the root problem is orthodoxy — what George Orwell in his preface calls ‘the gramophone mind’, the uncritical absorption of ‘the record that is being played at the moment’. What stalled the publication of Animal Farm (I have seen figures from 4 to 37 quoted for the number of times it was rejected) was political orthodoxy, or as we might say today political correctness: the British intelligentsia’s ‘uncritical loyalty to the USSR’ and to the mass-murderer ‘Stalin’ in particular. My efforts in the past year have not suffered from that species of orthodoxy, although it is interesting that numerous kind souls advised me not to mention George Calderon’s anti-suffragism or strike breaking in my approaches to editors, as the latter would immediately reject the book for ‘reasons’ of political incorrectness (on my part, presumably, for taking these subjects seriously rather than censoring them!).

No, the underlying cause of my, John’s, and thousands of other writers’ problems is orthodoxy tout court — orthodoxy of thought and institution. Commercial publishing is a vast agglomerated institution and therefore by nature bound to produce its orthodoxy. It will tend overwhelmingly to play ‘the record that is being played at the moment’. X have published a thin biography of Victoria Beckham, so we should rush one out. We must publish ‘new’ biographies of Shakespeare, Austen or Dickens, even though they contain less than one per cent new material, because people always want ‘new’ biographies of very famous people by well known biographers; it’s a tried recipe that ‘works’. That way orthodoxy always lies, although I would never suggest that orthodoxy does not change or even innovate; it’s not stable, it just changes/innovates/wobbles at the slowest pace necessary for its survival.

Although George Orwell analyses political orthodoxy brilliantly in his preface, what we are talking about here is a general anthropological-psychological phenomenon, which some might describe as simply fear and incomprehension of the new. ‘Nobody we know, nobody like us, has ever heard of George Calderon, so he can’t possibly be worth bothering with.’

I once happened to hear some people talking about me on the other side of the room (it is rather dangerous to have such sensitive hearing) and one said: ‘He’s not an establishment man, he’s never been part of an establishment.’ No, but I am certainly a passionate team-player, especially in the theatre. The point about establishments and orthodoxies is that you can only improve the design of boats by rocking them.

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5 Responses to Some notes on orthodoxy

  1. Margaret Kerry says:

    Hi Patrick – a large part of the pleasure of being your friend is that you are not an establishment man! Long may it continue. I feel pretty confident of that prediction.

  2. John Dewey says:

    Congratulations on reaching closure after your many ‘Gogolian’ tussles with the publishing industry, Patrick. Your sense of relief comes across vividly: the phrase ‘With one bound he was free’ springs to mind.

    £30 for such a thoroughly researched hardback of quality seems very reasonable to me, particularly as with Clay as printers production standards promise to be high.

    As you say, the orthodoxy we are up against is largely cultural rather than political, although the reservations expressed by some which you quote concerning George’s anti-suffragism and strike breaking are perhaps significant. In my biography of Tyutchev I made no attempt to gloss over his extreme PanSlavist views, which, if he were alive today, I’m sure would make him an ardent supporter of Putin, at least in the field of foreign policy. (Quixotically, he combined this with an equally ardent support of freedom of speech and internal reform.) Whether this may have put publishers off I have no way of telling, not that I would have changed a word of the book if it had. That would have been a shameful reversion to the Soviet practice (at least before Gorbachev) of playing down, shrugging off or even ignoring Tyutchev’s political views. Having said that, I have to say the main reason publishers dismissed the book was most likely that they saw it, in the words of sympathetic acquaintance, as ‘the biography of an unknown poet by an unknown writer’, and hence requiring some effort on their part to market.

    Your aphorism ‘you can only improve the design of boats by rocking them’ hits the nail on the head – one to remember!

    I wish you all the very best for your further steps in the exciting world of self-publishing, and look forward to the book’s long awaited appearance on 4 June.


  3. These words of Theodor Adorno’s came to mind regarding your point about orthodoxy in publishing: ‘Education is precisely that for which there are no correct uses; it is to be attained only through spontaneous effort and interest, not guaranteed solely by courses, even if these are of the general study type. Yes, in truth it does not even happen through effort, but instead thanks to receptiveness, the faculty of actually allowing something spiritual to come to one and absorbing it productively into one’s own consciousness, instead of (as an unbearable cliché puts it), just learning, just talking.’ (Philosophy and Teacher, 1963)

  4. Julian Bates says:

    Callooh! Callay! Patrick, belated congratulations on this huge step forward. I am so pleased that my prediction came true. But down to business: how do I pre-order? £30? A mere bagatelle. I shall put aside five of your English pounds each month till June!
    Only 5,999 to go!

  5. Patrick Miles says:

    Thank you, Jules, both for your Comment (we don’t often get them from Emeritus Professors of Chekhovian Business Management), and for putting your money where your bemusement is! Would you believe it, I have twelve preorders already. But we shall be printing SIGNIFICANTLY less than 6000..! All best, Patrick

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