Skip to Content

'Only 25 years ago'

19 July 2004

'It's only 25 years ago, but go back to the British book trade of 1979 and you find London dotted with dozens of small, independent imprints run by strong-minded mavericks. Book shops are gloomy, inhospitable places, smelling of stewed meat. In Hampstead, the manager of W H Smith turns off the lights when there are no customers to save electricity. In 1979 there is no Borders or Waterstone's, no Random House, no Orange Prize - and no Hay Festival.

Most telling of all, there is virtually no money, especially for writers. Novels are commonly signed up for £500, short-story collections for £200 or £300, or even less. When the hot-shot young agent Ed Victor sold a now-forgotten yarn, The Four Hundred by Stephen Sheppard, for a quake-worthy 'six-figure advance', the shockwaves reverberated from Bloomsbury to Harmondsworth.'

Robert McCrum, literary editor, in the Observer