THE WAY WE WERE

Robert McCrum in The Guardian on publishing as it used to be:

On that banal high street lived the booksellers. This Georgian square was home to publishing grandees. In those twisting back streets, you could expect to find literary agents working the margins with the injured innocence of pickpockets at a synod. It was a fully integrated, mutually dependent eco-system whose elaborate charts declared one thing: this is the known world.

On the highways through that landscape the tariffs were fixed and time-honoured. Royalties started at 10%, and might rise to 15% or, occasionally, 20%. Literary agents charged 10%, and exceptionally, 15%. The world of copyright in the English language was divided just two ways. There was our bit (Britain and the Commonwealth) and their bit (the US and its dependencies, including the Philippines). If there was a terra incognita it was the continent of Europe, the home of foreign languages.

In that lost world, whose coordinates have long been scattered to the four winds, custom and practice accumulated in literary life like the saffron-yellow back numbers of old magazines. Writers were dodgy, hard to pin down, but sometimes brilliant. Publishers were toffs, booksellers trade, and printers the artisan champions of liberty. Like the class-system, we thought, nothing would change. Everything would go on for ever. The most urgent deadline was lunch ...

12/11/12

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/09/robert-mccrum-transformation-publishing-ebooks