Court out

“Big business is no business of ours”, we wrote in this column last month (August 12). What a piffle. We were trying, in our way, to follow the ins and outs of a legal case that may well have a considerable impact on the books business in the United States for some time to come: the case brought by the US Department of Justice to stop the merger of two of the “Big Five” publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

Why does this matter? Here are two publishers, the Justice Department has argued, that paid, in 2020, a total of more than $500 million in advances for “anticipated top selling books”. Their combining forces threaten to eliminate that element of competition, harming authors’ earnings and in turn harming readers – yes, this is where we come in – by leading to a “reduction in the quantity and variety of books published”.

The two publishers’ many imprints deny this. The defense has invoked the need to “create a stronger counterweight” in the marketplace to Amazon’s commercial brute force. Yet the Justice Department could quote a PRH executive exclaiming that he “never, never bought into that argument”; and what the artists formerly known as PRH and S&S would like to become instead is an”[e]exceptional partner” to Amazon. That doesn’t sound exactly great for the quantity and variety of books published, either.

Now the closing arguments have been heard and a decision from the judge, Florence Y. Pan, is expected shortly. In the lull, a discarded mid-list PRH author might like to start sketching out a novel about a trial in which the weird workings of the book industry are exposed. Said novel could involve an executive who presents editors and publishers as “angel investors in our authors and their dreams, their stories” (as PRH’s CEO Markus Dohle has done). It could draw on Publishers Weekly: while the plucky prosecutors would frame the two publishing giants as “extraordinarily savvy”, the defense would out publishing as a “crap-shoot”; publishers are just romantic gamblers. The reader of this novel – destined to become something of a cult classic, we can tell – may be inclined to sympathize with the defendants on reading that “the top 4% of profitable titles in the book business drive 60% of its profitability”, and that of the 58,000 trade titles published in the US per year, only half sell more than a dozen copies.

We asked a publisher about the case and its likely ramifications. “Consolidation is never a good thing for readers”, he confirmed. The Justice Department’s case is, as he sees it, “absolutely valid” – in parts – but the overall impact of the case isn’t immediately clear. Depending on Judge Pan’s decision, however, it is possible that a newly formed Big Publisher could find itself in a position to do something “radically different”, “to call the shots more”. We knew it. Why weren’t we called to the stand?

Many readers will be familiar with WH Mallock’s novel A Human Document (1892): they will know it as A Humument by the artist Tom Phillips. First published in 1970, and revised to equally delightful effect over subsequent years, A Humument subverts Mallock’s blocks of prose, via the bright and bold use of collage, paint and pencil, to tell a story in its own way; it is a treatment that has consumed not only many years of work but, necessarily, many copies of A Human Documentobtained from the “shilling shelves of second-hand bookshops”.

While sniffing out copies of Mallock, we now learn, Mr Phillips was also picking up copies of another book bound on a “journey to oblivion”. With its plentiful blank leaves and good paper, however, Humbert Wolfe’s Cursory Rhymes (1927) could come in handy as a “natural album for notes, combined with a portable sketchbook”. In the Paris Cafe in Peckham Road (“now defunct”), for example, the artist might use a copy of Cursory Rhymes to record snippets relating to the “Dickensian clientele”, “in between reading bits of the TLS(“my favorite lunchtime reading for over sixty years”).

Dozens of copies of Cursory Rhymes later, Phillips has produced Humbert (Talfourd Press, £350), published this week. This sumptuous grandee of a book, reproducing hundreds of annotated and adapted pages of Wolfe, appears in a limited edition of 175 numbered copies and sixteen “hors de commerce” lettered copies, nobly ensconced in his own solander box. Humbert will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS. For now, let us merely contemplate one eloquent image out of hundreds, as reproduced above. We always knew that the tenth tarot card, the Wheel of Fortune, denoting the inevitability of change and so forth, had something to do with this paper. But now, thanks to Mr Phillips and this collage from Humbertit’s official.

The autumn issue of the Book Collector has landed on our doorstep with a bibliographically learned thud. It was followed by the more aesthetically airy slap of the latest issue of Intentions, the quarterly magazine of the Oscar Wilde Society. In the Book Collector we were entertained to read “Some Notes for Collectors” of the works of Julia Frankau – who wrote racy novels under the name Frank Danby – compiled by her great-grandson, Timothy d’Arch Smith. We have no of starting to collect the intentions of Julia Frankau. It is good, all the same, to learn here that it was Frankau who wrote the first published parody of her friend, Oscar Wilde (published in the Whitehall Review in 1880). She portrayed Wilde again in a novel called The Sphinx’s Lawyer (1906), while anticipating the Proustian world of the Grand Hotel, Cabourg in Baccarat (1904). We continue to join the tenuous dots: Frankau’s granddaughter Pamela, another writer, was the long-term partner of … Humbert Wolfe.

Intentions informs us that Jacob Epstein represented himself in court after threatening Lord Alfred Douglas (“I shall spoil the remains of your beauty double quick”), in a dispute relating to Epstein’s controversial argument to Wilde in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Epstein (take note, PRH) got away with a fine.

The good news, meanwhile, reported by Victoria Jacobsen, is that Eduardo Paolozzi’s thwarted scheme to erect a Wilde sculpture in Chelsea has been revived. It will cost around £310,000. Might a plucky new publisher, Simon Random Schuster, not offer to foot the bill?

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