Hugh Walpole

Hugh Walpole on ‘The Crisis in the Book Trade’

From the WhitefriarsJournal, vol. VI, no. 1, January 1921, pp. 32-34.

A considerable company of Friars and their Guests gathered together to hear Mr Hugh Walpole on the crisis in the book trade on 20th November 1920. Most of the speakers were far from optimistic in their views of the future. There seemed to be a consensus of opinion in the various discussions, which took place after dinner, that books were rapidly reaching a price which the public could not, or would not, pay. Further, that there was little prospect of any material fall in prices while publishers were called upon to meet the present abnormally high costs of production. The Prior was Friar Cecil Palmer.

Mr Hugh Walpole said that he had never before seen the inside of the Scarlet Room in which the Friars dined, and he told a story of an experience of his, when lecturing in the United States and feeling nervous about his lecture. His Chairman looked serious and gloomy, and introduced him as follows :––

‘Ladies and gentlemen, you will be glad to hear the Club is doing well. The Subscriptions are good, and I am anxious that everyone should work well. If the Club were richer, we might have had a better lecturer this evening. I will now introduce Mr Hugh Walpole.’

Mr. Walpole knew nothing about the book trade, except what he had seen from the cold street outside, with his face against the glass, looking at the warm, rich interior. He came to put some questions to the book trade, and he hoped he would be able to get answers. He reminded his listeners of a little letter of his to The Times, which appeared a year or two ago, and added that he took the precaution to sail to the States immediately it appeared. Sometimes he adored publishers, and thought they were at times most unjustly abused. No doubt publishing was now extremely expensive, and reaching heights which would soon make the purchase of fiction impossible. It was said that the young author, whatever his difficulties, if he had genius would push through, but his experience was that during the last few years there had been an extraordinary absence of promising first novels, and those which had appeared were, he thought, failures. As a rule, it was his experience that booksellers thrust ridiculous books on their customers, though he had far happier experiences with the multiple shops. On one occasion he wanted Galsworthy’s In Chancery, and the bookseller tried hard to put him off, saying it was dull. The system in the States of publishers being salesmen of their own wares (Mr Walpole referred to American publishers having their own large retail book saloons attached to their publishing offices—Ed.) had many points to recommend it. Why should books not be sold on barrows in the streets? In this, and other unorthodox ways, many additional books might be sold. The ordinary person seems to look upon books as something apart from him, and would be aghast at spending 10s. on a book, yet would spend double this sum on a single set theatre ticket.

 Publishers and authors seemed to be on one side of the hedge and the motley crowd on the other side as a people apart. This was not so in the times of the monthly-parts novel. There are so many fine books which might be brought to the man in the street, as his betting news is, and something ought to be done to break down the present barrier.

These were just a few.of the suggestions made by Mr. Walpole to get information, as he put it, how those barriers might be broken down.

Friar G. B. Burgin continued the discussion and emphasised the need for a friendlier understanding between author and publisher.

Friar Hamilton Fyfe, who had his two publishers one on either side of him, stated what he had to say was not by way of abuse, but friendly admonition, His view was that publisher should not try to undercut each other so that they might get all classes of book-selling, but should go in for one particular class of publishing and one special public.

Friar Harold Shaylor made some excellent points, and was the only optimistic speaker of the evening. He thought that the present state of bookselling was good, and that there was no crisis. Times were vastly different from what they were in Thackeray's day, when book reading had few rivals, whereas today there were football matches, cinemas, and all the hundred-and-one sports to be indulged in. He differed from the remarks of Mr. Hugh Walpole with regard to the difficulties of getting first novels published, and surprised his hearers by stating that there had been fifty first novels during the present year. They might not all be successes, but no doubt those authors whose, writing had real skill would get other works published, and he ventured to doubt if Mr. Hugh Walpole's first novel was a success.

Friar Clive Holland, in a humorous speech, full. of point, also joined in the discussion.

Mr Stocker thought the crisis to-day with regard to publishing was that the author, publisher and bookseller were too commercial, and looked forward to the time when we should have a revolution. If we did, it was doubtful if we should profit by it, but when we did get one, it would be Bolshevism plus Anarchy. As regards books, the public did not know what it wanted, and the publisher was trying to find out. Book publishing must be done for love of the work, and now-a-days authors mostly work for love of the task.

Mr G. Marshall, Messrs W. H. Smith & Son’s distinguished librarian, spoke of the impossibility of supplying all books at a day’s notice at present rates of subscription by the public. TheTimes Book Club under certain conditions, now undertook to supply any book at a day's notice, but at what a price!

Mr Walpole, in his reply, dealt with many points raised by the various speakers,, and made an eloquent plea for closer cooperation between author, publisher and bookseller in their joint interest. He also expressed an earnest hope that in times to come they might meet together for discussion, and thus help each other to greater prosperity by means of a far larger sale of books,—C. G. [Friar Cyril Gamon]