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A E Houseman and the publisher’s lament

February 15, 2011
Ark Royal in Portsmouth Jan 2011

British Sea Power - publishing, like government faith in the Royal Navy, is not what it was so many years ago

Over the many years I have worked in marketing for publishing companies, it’s always surprised me how many people want to do marketing because it is “fun”. As the years roll by, fun is often replaced by hard maths and analysis as tyro turns to old hack and youthful zest turns to analytical interrogation. Marketing loses its power to excite as once it did.

Certainly I recall in the early days of my own marketing career the great fun we had with concepts, ideas, visual briefs and collateral output such as catalogues, advertisements, brochures etc. And of course, there is no harm in this being fun. But in many companies, marketing as a discipline rarely rises above this level: the inane pursuit of banal ideas in the vain hope of consumer visibility and peer recognition.

The real problem is that, in many publishing companies, marketing receives little more than lip service. In publishing companies, where hard cash is even harder to find, marketing is seen as a heavy burden with few measurable outputs.

This then creates an unvirtuous circle where no money is invested, marketing under-performs, and the results are so poor that marketing receives a bad press and, yes, no further investment. Marketing outputs in such a case continue to be conceptual, with no guidance saved received wisdom. Not a good place to be.

With no budget, outputs are poor and marketing receives no place at the board room table. Training in marketers and investment in marketing is low, resulting in unimaginative outputs, a demoralised staff and resentment at management leve. 

But if marketing is grasped at the top level in publishing then there is a chance that the industry will move away from under-investment. With social media replacing the ludicrously inefficient book trade as a way of spreading message, and with online technology now making it possible to promote books under £20 profitably, times are a-changing.

With change, though, comes intellectual demands and conceptual knowledge far greater than the young marketer had to know in the olden days. Social media demands of staff a much higher knowledge of brand, of reach, of conversion, of profit than ever before.

No more can the listless new graduate drift into publishing as the bolt hole for the last vestiges of English incompetence. The business has now got so much more complicated. It is commercial – or rather, it now has to be commercial. And, despite the inane stupidity of its desperate clinging to the book trade and the comfort of the price band, it has to think and plan in much more complex ways in order to survive. And so it must.

Yet change and commercial focus do mean that the industry has changed from that we knew. No more the drunken publisher’s lunch, rolling in at 4pm in time to put on your coat to go home… No more the lazy brochures designed more for appearance than performance… No more the nonsensical career progression based on which college you attended at Cambridge… It’s all gone (or close to going)

Yet in some ways, like the passing of British sea power, we lament the change. Simpler days made simpler lives. Joys were tossed in gay abandon as colleagues laughed and joked among the gardens of their creative minds. Friends and ideas, made and lost along the way. As A.E. Houseman wrote:

“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.”



(Image – HMS Ark Royal in January 2011 – its last visit to Portsmouth before scrapping. Courtesy of the Royal Navy website)

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