Preface to Authors
From The Truth About Publishing, by Sir Stanley Unwin, first published 1926

(This classic book on publishing was written more than 90 years ago by the famous publisher from George Allen & Unwin. Though much of the book is out of date in today’s world of electronic communications and production, it still contains a good deal of pertinent horse-sense.)

Publishers are not necessarily either philanthropists or rogues. Likewise they are usually neither lordly magnates nor cringing beggars. As a working hypothesis, regard them as ordinary human beings trying to earn their living at an unusually difficult occupation. (It is easy to become a publisher, but difficult to remain one; the mortality in infancy is higher than in any other trade or profession.)

Remember that – pretty ladies sometimes excepted and they seldom produce the best MS. – the publisher is not interested in you until he is interested in, your work. Let your manuscript therefore be your ambassador and do not mar its chances by insisting upon a quite unnecessary interview. The publisher will request you to call fast enough if he finds your work attrac­tive.

Your manuscript is doubtless a masterpiece, but do not suggest that to the publisher, because all the most hopeless manuscripts that have come his way have prob­ably been so described by their authors. The works of genius are apt to arrive unheralded, and it is for those that the publisher is looking.

Your manuscript is your baby, maybe your only child, but the publisher finds a dozen or so new babies on his doorstep every morning and has several thousand older children overrunning his warehouse and his entire establishment, all of them calling simultaneously for his undivided attention.

With the best will in the world, therefore, there is a definite limit to the time he can spend on yours. Every moment of the publisher's time you waste on needless interviews and distracting telephone calls may he a moment less for the more important task of attending to your offspring.

If you want your manuscript to make a good impression, bestow some care upon it and don't ask the pub­lisher. to look at it in instalments. Outward appearances do not matter, but slovenliness and inconsistency do. The fact that twice running in the same way; that a word capitalized on one page is not capitalized on the next., that the first and third chapters have headings, but the second none; that quotations are inaccurately given; that, in brief, the author has skimped his job, makes the worst possible impression upon the publisher as well as upon the publisher's reader. A little extra time spent on the preparation of the MS. is worth more to the author than the longest interview with a publisher, or any letter of introduction.

Bear in mind that in common with all human beings, publishers are fallible. They all, I imagine, wish they were not, but they all know (and admit) that they are. "Publishing fallibility" is too expensive an item in his trading account for any publisher to be in danger of overlooking it. If a publisher declines your manuscript, remember it is merely the decision of one fallible human being, and try another. Don't try to bully the first publisher into telling you why he declined it. He would (in most cases) be a fool to tell you, because, despite fervid assurances to the contrary, not one author in a hundred wants aught but praise of his offspring.

If a publisher accepts your manuscript, remember that in the long run it is the public which decides what the reward of authorship shall be; that the public is a fickle paymaster, and that if it decides to reward hand­somely some disherup of scandal, and to grant the learned historian or philosopher nothing, the publisher is not to blame. If the public will not buy your book the publisher cannot make money either for you or himself. The source of profit, strange as it is to be compelled to reiterate the fact, is the difference between what a book costs to manufacture and what the book­sellers pay the publisher for it. A profit cannot be made out of selling a book for what it costs to produce. It is astonishing how many authors think that it can; who assume, in fact, that the laws of arithmetic do not apply to publishers.

All that glitters is not gold. The most effective advertiser is not usually the most showy, just as the most efficient doctor is not often the one with the largest doorplate. The widespread distribution of a book in every corner of the globe does not begin and end with advertisements in two Sunday papers. It is a process laboriously built up brick by brick. It is one thing to be able to sell a book for ten or twelve weeks – quite another to do so for ten or twelve years. These are points to bear in mind when choosing your publisher, but there are others. Does he really know his job? If he does, trust him to get on with it; if he does not, do. not go to him. Is he financially sound – beyond a peradventure? If he is, the hardest bargain he may drive is likely to prove more profitable to you than the most alluring contract with an insolvent firm. A 10 per cent. royalty that arrives the day it is due is better than a 20 per cent. royalty that is never forthcoming.

The most stable firms are usually those which have a strong back list of publications with a continuous. and profitable sale and who therefore have no need to gamble to secure new business.

Having chosen your publisher, cooperate with him, but do not start out to teach him his job. It is not cooperating, but positively hindering him, to ring him up on the telephone, when a post card or a letter would be equally or probably more effective. Never bother the head of a firm with a departmental job. Publishers are not usually either expert shorthandtypists or telephone operators, but never a day goes by when authors do not (quite needlessly) try to use them as such. If lengthy instructions must be given over the telephone (they should in any case be confirmed in writing), it would seem more rational to ask a shorthandtypist to take them down than to expect the head of the firm laboriously to do so in longhand, and it is much quicker to telephone the department concerned than to insist upon speaking to the head of the firm and asking him to telephone to the department for the information desired.

Just as you can take a horse to the water but cannot make it drink, a publisher can take a new book to a bookseller, but cannot make him buy. Over ten thou­sand new books are published every year, and booksellers can of necessity only stock a selection of them. Because your friends affect surprise that your book is not in stock at the local newsagent there is no need for you to do so.

The fact that a best seller or a cheap reprint is on a railway bookstall is no reason why your book should be. It will not become a best seller just because it is put on a bookstall; it is much more likely to become soiled stock. The railway bookstall proprietors, who see all the new books, know better than anyone else what they can and cannot sell, and if they decide against yours, the chances are at least a hundred to one upon their being right.

Every new book issued by a wellestablished publisher is shown before publication to the London book­sellers and either before publication or shortly thereafter to all the principal booksellers in the provinces. The fact that the particular bookseller’s assistant you inter­viewed had never heard of your book is no evidence that your publisher was negligent. On the contrary, it may merely mean that on the one hand when the book was "subscribed" the bookseller declined it, or on the other that the assistant is not following the lists of new publications in the book trade papers as carefully as he might.

But any bookseller or bookstall ought to be able to execute an order for your book promptly, and if any difficulty is experienced your publisher should be imme­diately advised. Despite all impressions to the contrary, the selling of new books is seldom a lucrative business; too few people buy them. Possibly you have observed that even your own friends and acquaintances unblushingly try to “cadge” copies of your books. Pocket your pride (or your snobbery!) and tell them boldly that if they don’t think the book worth buying, you would rather they did not read it; and do your part in educating the public into a deeper appreciation of books by joining the National Book League and working for it.

In writing this book it has been my endeavour to examine controversial questions as impartially as pos­sible, and always with the hope of finding common ground, rather than points of disagreement.

The growing commercialization of literature – in­evitable though it may be – does not tend to promote more harmonious relations between authors and pub­lishers. It is based on the assumption that manuscripts and books are mere commodities; dead, not living things. Such an assumption ignores the peculiar and indeed parental relationship of the author to his work, the realization of which is the beginning of wisdom in a publisher.

I hope that in my zeal to explain the publisher's difficulties 1 have not shown any lack of sympathy with authors. 1 can truthfully say that this book would have been a good deal easier to write had 1 not seen their point of view so clearly.

It was primarily in the hope of helping inexperienced writers to understand some of the technicalities of publishing and thereby to assist. them that I allowed myself to be persuaded by several of their number to provide this brief account of book publishing.

If 1 have succeeded in making the path of the beginner a little smoother, and contributed in any way towards the promotion of pleasanter and more intelligent relations between authors and publishers, I shall be well rewarded.

Two last points: If a publisher has had enough faith in you to go on losing money over the publication of your early and possibly immature work, it is not cricket either to take your first readily saleable MS. elsewhere without submitting it to him or to expect him to bid for it in competition with others who have not spent a penny in helping to establish your reputation. It is even more unsporting to ask a literary agent to kick away on your behalf the ladder which has enabled you to climb.

Finally, read your contract and remember that your publisher is just as much entitled to expect you to honour your signature as you are to insist upon his honouring his.

Because I have drawn attention to various ways in which some authors prejudice their own interests with their publishers, I am told that my composite portrait of an author is "not attractive." If it was not realised that I was addressing a plea to the particular species I described, then I must agree with my critics. May I therefore record – which 1 deemed unnecessary at the time – that there are many authors who commit none of the nuisances to which I referred; that there are some who are almost angelic; and then add – perhaps a trifle maliciously – that it is the black sheep in a flock upon which the eye most frequently alights?