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Graham Greene Threatens to Shift : British Authors Balk at Publishing Mergers

May 18, 1987|From Reuters

LONDON — Author Graham Greene has sent a flurry of excitement through the London literary world, not with a new novel but an indignant letter to the Times of London threatening to quit his longtime publisher.

Greene's warning to Bodley Head reflects the anger of many writers who feel they have been given short shrift in what seemed to be an irreversible tide of corporate conglomeration within the British book business.

Bodley Head, publishers of Greene's works for a quarter of a century, merged with two of the country's most prestigious literary imprints, Jonathan Cape and Chatto & Windus, in 1973. The combine grew even bigger in 1982 when joined by Virago.

In the past decade, takeovers have swept through many of the small publishing houses centered in the elegant squares of London's Bloomsbury area.

The Penguin group bought Michael Joseph, Hamish Hamilton and Sphere; Collins amalgamated with Fontana and Grafton, while Associated Book Publishers gained control of a host of firms, including Methuen and Tavistock.

In the process, many writers and their agents contend that the essential personal element that went into editing and producing books has been eroded as publishers become more commercial and focus on corporate finances.

Expects Changes

Greene did not detail his own specific complaints in his letter to the Times in early April, but he warned that the chief of the publishing conglomerate, who is his nephew Graham Carlton Greene, was living in a "fantasy world" if he thought changes would not be made.

"Publishers depend on authors, and I am sure that I am not the only author who will consider leaving the group should there be none of the necessary changes in the administration," he wrote.

Greene has written about 60 works, including "The Power and the Glory," "The Heart of the Matter," and "The Quiet American."

The consortium's board held an emergency meeting in response to his complaints. Bodley Head Chairman Max Reinhardt, who reportedly wants to make the firm independent again rather than lose Greene, later said the novelist was satisfied by unspecified changes.

The effort to placate a distinguished 82-year-old author came in the same week as the launch of a small, independent publishing house whose creation is seen as a sign that the merger pattern could change.

The new house, Bloomsbury Books, is headed by Liz Calder, who defected from Jonathan Cape after eight years.

Mass Exodus Rumored

Her move sparked rumors that Cape's impressive stable of authors, including Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Anita Brookner and Julian Barnes, might be lured away.

None have left so far, but Bloomsbury's first list of 25 volumes, backed by $3.2 million from institutional investors, is being hailed as a triumph against the impersonal companies putting out most British books.

"Until relatively recently, it was assumed that 'literary' authors were grateful to be published and didn't really expect their books to sell," prominent agent Giles Gordon wrote of the coincidence of Bloomsbury's launch and Greene's letter.

He said in an article in a London newspaper that authors of quality books have become more militant, "Authors now properly demand both individual attention from their publishers and an overall professionalism in the marketing of their creations."

According to Gordon, many British publishers in the amalgamated smaller houses "tended to behave like medieval barons, keeping advances and royalties down--and certainly the salaries of their staff--while continuing to proclaim that the quality of their list was inviolate."

Bloomsbury hopes to meet this demand, working closely with authors during each step of the publishing process. It plans to publish a wide range of fiction, biography, current affairs and reference works.

Among its first books are a first novel titled "Trust" by Mary Flanagan, and "The Land That Lost Its Heroes," an account of a British journalist who remained in Argentina just after the 1982 Falklands war, written by Jimmy Burns.

"It's the view of all of us at Bloomsbury that conglomerate publishing at the end of the day isn't the way forward," said sales director Alan Wherry.

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