In 2004, a middle-aged English businessman named George Courtauld decided to put together a slim, illustrated album for his three young sons.  It was called The Pocket Book of Patriotism.  The original idea had come to him on a crowded train home from work to his house in the countryside east of London on Christmas Eve.  “There was a little boy with his arm in a sling looking for a seat next to his friends,” Courtauld told the Daily Telegraph.

“A kindly older woman offered him hers, suggesting that ‘Little Lord Nelson’ might like to sit.”  But the boy did not know whom the woman was talking about.  “She said: ‘You know, England expects!  Admiral Nelson,’” recalls Courtauld.  “And the boy replied: ‘Of course, the man in Star Trek!’”

Finding this “rather sad,” Courtauld went to work on his project.  The idea was to draw up “a chart containing all the British historic events he thought his children should know about.”  It began as a seven-page timeline, with a few explanatory footnotes, and grew from there as friends and family made their own suggestions.  As the list grew, Courtauld realized there was enough material for a “‘very simple history book.’  Or as he describes it: ‘No judgement, no padding—just the bare bones of our magnificent history.’”

Courtauld eventually spent “six months researching and checking facts and events. . . . ‘It was the most absurd amount of fun, and highly educational.’”  At that stage, he approached several leading British book publishers.  We can perhaps spare their blushes, but it would be fair to say that most of the best-known international imprints were among them.  None was interested.  Some of them returned the manuscript without comment.  Others advised the author to tone down the most patriotic elements of the book by dropping the Churchill speeches or omitting the fact that Britons had once referred to their currency as pounds and shillings, had measured their temperature in Fahrenheit, and spoken of such things as yards and ounces, rather than meters and kilograms.  More than one was offended by the book’s title.  “Courtauld insisted all of these were vital,” reports the Telegraph.  “‘Everyone seemed concerned about the Britishness of it all,’ he says.”  One particularly prominent publisher wondered if the book was “sexy” enough, and another worried that stating such facts as “The Royal Navy comprehensively won the Battle of Trafalgar” might be “provocative” to Britain’s European neighbors.  No self-respecting satirist would make such comments up.  As a rule, book publishers are paid to recognize a commercially viable project when they see it, and then unobtrusively to bring a bound edition of the completed work to the booksellers in a punctual manner.  For the most part, they generally prove incapable of either function, but are otherwise largely amiable people who enjoy a long lunch, frequently lose things, and on the whole prefer to talk of matters other than books.  As a profession, publishing attracts liberal, idle, incompetent young men and overqualified, intense young women.  It is not a society I personally would care to be in for reasons other than professional necessity.  Having formed broadly the same opinion, George Courtauld took the decision to self-publish The Pocket Book of Patriotism, knowing that it would have to sell half of its initial 10,000-copy print run to break even—a tall order without a publishing house’s marketing muscle behind him.

In the event, Courtauld took over 1,000 orders at the book’s launch party alone.  He disposed of a further 27,000 copies during that same week.  The book’s first printing was sold out within ten days, and four more impressions were rushed through to meet public demand.  The website Courtauld set up as his sole form of advertising received 142,000 hits on its first morning of operation.  The Pocket Book of Patriotism subsequently rose to No. 3 on the Amazon U.K. nonfiction bestseller list.  At that stage, several international book chains, including Barnes & Noble, began placing large orders for it.

“They didn’t want to talk to me even two weeks ago,” said Courtauld, clearly shocked by the book’s success . . . “I just felt it was an important thing to do.  Children don’t seem to know enough of our history—they see all these blockbuster films, such as Pearl Harbor and Braveheart, that give them a completely horrendous and wrong view of what actually happened.”

Mr. Courtauld, who in civilian life manages an executive-recruitment firm, had just experienced what psychologists and their ilk call a paradigm shift.  He had gone from a world that, for the most part, is rooted in material reality, which values reductive thinking and rational inquiry, and entered the parallel universe of modern book publishing.  In the latter, individual guesswork, prejudice, and instinct take the place of market analysis, and any plausible 21-year-old to appear on the horizon expressing an interest in “the arts” will be rewarded with the instant title of Editor.  In this looking-glass world, flagrantly unfashionable concepts such as punctuality, self-discipline, deference, courtesy, and the satisfaction of a professional finish are replaced by improvisation and wishful thinking.  It is a world that admits no shame, and whose leading practitioners are never obliged to explain or apologize.  There is no real diversity in publishing.  Book editors may be conservative in their tastes, but in their politics they are entirely left-wing.  It comes as no surprise to learn that, following the success of The Pocket Book of Patriotism, George Courtauld was inundated with offers from all the leading publishing houses for the privilege of buying its successor, The Pocket Book of Patriots.  I am reliably told that there was no palpable sense of embarrassment among any of the young editors who only a few weeks earlier had slammed the door in Courtauld’s face.  “We’re not interested in The Pocket Book of Patriotism,” one representative of a well-known house had said on their initial meeting.  “But by all means, stay in touch.”  He then handed Courtauld his business card and left the room.  Six months later, Courtauld found himself back on the same premises, giving his old friend a slightly embarrassed smile, as if to say, Well, this is awkward.  But the editor himself was completely unfazed.  “So, you’ve written a Book of Patriots, have you?” he said.  “We’re definitely interested.”  He then dutifully forked over another business card and suggested they do lunch.

The best cure for any tendency to dream fondly of the joys and privileges of authorship is, in my experience, to contemplate the horror of actually dealing with most modern book publishers.  By and large (and I have seen them at close quarters, for some years, on both sides of the Atlantic) they tend to fall into two categories.  There are pleasant incompetents, who have no particular knowledge of, or interest in, books per se.  They are cloistered in their editor’s cubicle, which will be furnished from floor to ceiling with a bazaar of dusty manuscripts, book jackets, photographs, maps, bulging files, and yellowing newspaper clippings, because on the whole such is preferable for them to a real job with performance-based responsibilities, a dress code, and the like.  And there are unpleasant incompetents, who themselves are often frustrated or unsuccessful authors, and who will interfere in your book with a whole series of the most satirically pedantic objections to it—their fixation on always hitting a jackpot precluding any interest in making smaller, surer sums of money.  These are the people who will also lose your book’s photographs, or fail to send the finished volume to the short list of friendly reviewers you supply them.  Or perhaps that is just my impression.  There may well be a third species of editor who is genuinely motivated by disinterested professionalism, technical expertise, exquisite taste, profound scholarship, freedom from corrosive jealousy, and sympathy for the author’s chosen but lonely lot in life.  As I say, there may be such a person—but in 33 years’ experience of the trade (and making the very honorable exception of my incumbent editor), I have yet to encounter one.

Chronicles readers will perhaps need no further comment on the relentless market forces that continue slowly to obliterate the print-based publishing industry as we’ve come to know and, in many cases, love it.  Its ineluctable fate was eloquently put in the August 2013 issue of the magazine (“End of the World of Books”), which included the surely definitive statement of John Lukacs that “The primacy of the printed word is now largely gone.  The primacy of pictorial ‘information,’ of selected images and news, has replaced it.”  I can only sadly concur.  When words like Internet or Kindle or e-book are mentioned, one naturally thinks of the larger revolution in reading habits that appears to afflict almost all levels of society throughout the Western world, and which displays all the self-denying characteristics of a particularly virulent flu pandemic.  That harsh truth is certainly an important factor in the death of the old-fashioned book, but it’s still easy to forget the most important element involved: people.

It is not a mysterious change of consumer habits that aggressively rejects the likes of Mr. Courtauld’s project and, instead, brings us book titles such as (I quote only representatively from the literally thousands available) Gangsta Rap Coloring Book, The Gay Dolphin Adventure, and, my personal favorite, How People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders, and What to Do About It.  As I say, it wasn’t some entity called the market that commissioned these gems; it was human beings—the human beings whose immediate predecessors were routinely able to prepare a manuscript efficiently for press and print it within six weeks of taking delivery, while allowing literary editors to receive their advance editions, post them to reviewers and receive their reviews, supply the author with a dozen complimentary copies, and in general oversee a smooth-running and time-honored operation that put the premium on the well-crafted work that turned a modest profit, rather than on the aspirant blockbuster, frequently bearing the name of a celebrity author on terms of only nodding acquaintance, if that, with the book’s contents, and which more often than not fails ruinously, taking the budget for a dozen more worthy, if less glamorous, projects with it.

There may be exceptions, but as a rule today’s custodians of the printed book are so stunningly self-involved, myopic, petty, absurd, clueless, whiny, shallow, and soulless that one might hesitate to let any of them look after your pet hamster for the weekend, let alone the future of Western literature.  Not long ago, a young woman who calls herself the “deputy director designate and senior commissioning editor, non-fiction,” at the London office of a well-known international publisher (again, I’ll spare their blushes) told me, with unfeigned pleasure in the fact, about how her company had sent her away on a week of external training.  I should mention that this particular firm had recently manufactured a book of mine that set an unwanted personal record for misprints, including one on the front cover.  Apparently, the training had concentrated less on matters such as how to deliver a professionally finished end product and supply it to the customer, and more on how to perform and speak in today’s “challenging post-belletristic marketplace.”  As the name of the course implies, this introduced the editor to a whole new language.  Not a foreign language, exactly, but not English, either.  “I learnt,” she said proudly, “about ‘Adapting the legacy publisher to incorporate Personality, Mission and Focus,’ ‘Spatial selectivity,’ ‘audience solutions,’ and”—her own favorite—“‘Cross-synergetic cultural awareness,’” which is apparently vital for the busy editor in that post-belletristic environment: what the uninitiated would call keeping your eyes and ears open.  For good measure, she went on to tell me that the “concentrated marketing campaign” (you could have fooled me) for my book was at “the heart of the sales initiative,” and would be “pursued across the board in a strategic, systematic, and innovative manner.”

“What about the typos?” I asked her.

Again, I speak solely from experience, but these are the people, generally in their 20’s or early 30’s, with the future of our reading resources in their hands, themselves barely literate, who speak mirthlessly about how to “provide the consumer-stakeholder with an end product with which to serve the overall target objective,” or, as ordinary folk might say, to give the public the avalanche of ghosted show-business memoirs you think they want.

Of course, like most of us, the young men and women responsible for publishing books have their share of humanizing contradictions.  I know of one whom I always thought of as functionally illiterate, yet who now practices as a successful journalist, with a neat turn of phrase and an ability to produce the occasional striking, even memorable epigram (“Men leave women for other women; women leave men for themselves”), while another, a rather courtly gentleman in his mid-40’s, who used to tell me at length how the likes of the Beatles and the Stones had “ruined” Western culture, seems to have adopted a new career as the manager of a “surrealist, post-punk, speed thrash band” by the striking name of the Chequebook Journalists.  I am sure there are others of their ilk who are commendably kind to children and animals, and send money to Greenpeace.  Whatever their individual merits, however, it would be a mistake to think that the people responsible for publishing books have an innate skill for spotting the best available manuscripts and stories.  You may recognize the name of Chuck Ross, who briefly gained a degree of national prominence here in the United States in the 1970’s.  Mr. Ross had written a mystery novel that had been turned down everywhere he sent it.  Curious about the inner workings of the American publishing industry, he then retyped a well-known novel named Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski, and submitted it under an alias to 14 major publishers and 13 top agents.  As an act of artistic subterfuge, it would be hard to improve upon.  “Every publisher and every agent turned it down,” Mr. Ross told Bob Greene of CNN.  “None recognized that they were rejecting a book that had already been a bestseller and had won the National Book Award.  So much for talent being judged on its own merit.”

Mr. Ross’s gentle (and purely noncommercial) exercise in intellectual deception would be followed by many similar cases over the years.  I admit that I once tried it myself, by typing up a now lesser-known Hemingway story called “A Day’s Wait,” changing one or two words into modern jargon, and submitting it to the London branch of a global publishing empire.  Apart from the new idiom, and one or two deliberate typos, the version I presented was the exact same 1,200-word text that had appeared to some acclaim as part of a 1933 collection entitled Winner Takes Nothing.  But I didn’t put that title on it, and I didn’t put Hemingway’s name on it.  Three or four weeks later, the publisher returned the manuscript to me with the scathing verdict that it lacked “the one great necessary point for fiction, i.e., interest.”  We all make mistakes, but it has to be said that the track record of editors as a whole is not an enviable one when it comes to recognizing talent.  Animal Farm was famously rejected by no less a judge than T.S. Eliot, who called it “not convincing.”  More recently, works as diverse as Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the first of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise all received the pink slip before eventually finding their way into (those were the days) our local neighborhood bookstore.  In the case of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, the head of fiction at Simon & Schuster believed the great picaresque tale of New Orleans street life was “not really about anything”—a defensible view, perhaps, but one that would not seem to anticipate the book’s winning of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for its author, who had committed suicide while awaiting publication.

There are passages in life when the misery of the world threatens to engulf us, when the anguish of the human condition, far from adding spice and savor to the continuing fact of our survival against the odds, seems an infinite rebuke.  Quite a few young people, I believe, feel like this while struggling to find their way forward, and all too many of them turn to the consolation of drink, drugs, or uncomplicated sex.  My own moment of inner desolation comes with my regular visits to a publisher’s office to discuss the progress of a book.  Over the years, you grow used to the petty annoyances of seeing your index “misplaced” (generally to turn up stuffed behind your editor’s office door), or a cover photograph printed the wrong way round, so that, for example, Eric Clapton is seen to play the guitar left-handed—not the ideal advertisement for the “definitive biography” promised of the subject.  You learn to live with it.  What grates more than the routine feeling one has of being trapped in the back of a bus being driven downhill by the Marx Brothers is the pervasive sense of dealing with people who are on terms only of passing familiarity with the whole history of Western political or popular culture.  Not long ago, I made what I like to think was a convincing case for a book to be called Everything You Know Is Wrong, which would take the position that all too many of our modern celebrities have risen more by virtue of a lurid self-projection, readily embraced by the tabloid media, than through any innate creative ability.  I had in mind a chapter on the sort of comedian who uses embarrassment and humiliation as his chief currency, but whose main fuels are cruelty and contempt, and another one on the strange prevalence of the talentless pop ingénue whose act consists of a protracted native fertility dance.  Readers may have their own candidates for inclusion.  Anyway, I liked the concept.  The commissioning editor with whom I discussed it was less enthused, but drew my attention to his alternative scheme for a work of “Hollywood make-believe,” an anthology of “faction” stories, each with some bizarre twist, such as the author imagining himself alone in an elevator in 1955 with a bikini-clad Marilyn Monroe.  Although I declined this particular project, I went on to counterpitch a biography of Billie Holiday, the centennial of whose birth we celebrated in 2015.  I should mention that the editor in question had previously handed me his business card, and that this identified him as the “Head of Arts, Culture and Entertainment” of a brand-name global publisher.  “I don’t think anyone’s very interested in Billie Holiday,” he told me.

Of course, there are rather profound challenges today to the whole concept of publishing books in paper form.  To many of those under the age of 30, the old-fashioned way of reading, with its obligation to apply thumb and forefinger to the page repeatedly, must seem as quaint as perusing the hieroglyphics on the wall of a tomb.  The competition of ancient, pre-digital forms of products and their modern, digital counterparts was clearly uneven from the start, and was already over before many traditional book publishers even realized it had begun.  My point isn’t that every such publisher and editor remains in a state of utter denial, remorselessly turning out their strange, inky wares until such time as this passing fad of the Internet goes the way of the beanbag and we can all go back to the way things used to be.  I’m sure there are many faultlessly progressive young men and women thronging the halls of Simon & Schuster and the rest, fully on board with the electronic article, but still commendably dedicated to the needs of the silent army of fetishists—those eccentrics who actively love the heft and feel and smell of books, never to be replaced by the dubious charms of a soulless little screen.  Yes, I’m sure many such hard-working professionals exist.  It’s just that, again, I personally have never met them.  Publishing, instead, continues to offer sanctuary to those stray, would-be writers and artists vaguely inclined to the “creative” lifestyle without any immediately discernible creative abilities of their own to sustain it.  That would be all right if these same individuals at least brought the minimum business-efficiency quotient to the table, but again I see no evidence.  They simply exist, time-serving, insulated, vaguely confused, anachronistic, increasingly ludicrous, and yet, for all that, strangely endearing.  They’re like Merrie Melodies cartoon characters—no matter how often shot, vaporized, tossed off cliffs, they always bounce back and get on with the show.  They will still be out there long after most authors have given up the struggle.