Why today’s play publishers ‘are like greyhounds straining in the slips’
Competition to find the next hot emerging playwright can be fierce among theatre publishers hoping for a long and rewarding relationship. But is the market saturated? Lyn Gardner takes the temperature of the text trade
On the first day in his new job as commissioning editor of plays at Methuen Drama, an imprint of Bloomsbury, Dom O’Hanlon spent the morning reading a play, which was Edinburgh-bound, by an unknown writer. In the afternoon he spoke at length with celebrated playwright Edward Bond.
That first day reflected how successful play-script publishing depends on two strands: a strong backlist of titles by established playwrights that keep selling and selling, and a real eye for spotting the talents who are going to be successful in the future.
Every publisher’s list, however deep and broad, requires constant renewal. Sign up a young Lucy Kirkwood, Simon Stephens or Dennis Kelly and in a few years the money comes rolling in as their plays are revived, produced all over the world and widely studied.
“Play publishing is a bet on the future,” says George Spender, editorial director at Oberon Books.
If you get it right, it offers substantial returns for both publishers and playwrights over a very long period. For playwrights such as Caryl Churchill and Mike Bartlett, their published texts sell so well that the royalty cheques will be a strong source of revenue. It’s why publishing editors develop strong relationships with agents representing fledgling talent and keep a close eye on programme announcements by theatres.
“When Hampstead Downstairs or the Bush are announcing a new season, we publishers are like greyhounds straining in the slips,” says Nick Hern of Nick Hern Books, which he founded 30 years ago. Competition among the publishers to sign up the next hot young thing is, says Douglas Schatz, managing director of Samuel French, “strong, but gentlemanly. We all respect each other”.
Because the licensing of plays is such a substantial part of their business, the decision by French to publish a title is never taken by a single individual. It has a group of 25 people on the hunt for the next Laura Wade or Natasha Gordon, and potential acquisitions are considered from many angles, including whether the marketing team feels it can sell the script and the licensing department believes it will be revived regularly in the future. “We try to put our full muscle and strength behind every title,” says Schatz.
Of course, no play or playwright is a dead cert or indeed a dead loss. Spender published a trilogy of queer work he really liked called The Well and Badly Loved by Ben Webb, originally staged at Ovalhouse in south London. Sales were modest, but then the play suddenly got a long, high-profile run in Mexico and the title took off.
Theatre publishing is also taking off and experiencing a mini-boom. Hern calls it “an enchanted bubble”. More plays are being published than ever before and, thanks largely to Oberon, it’s not just plays that are finding their way into print.
Changes in the publishing process and the shift to digital, which has slashed costs, have enabled this publishing boom. Samuel French, which has been publishing plays for 188 years, no longer even has a warehouse and can print all its titles on demand.
Digital means it’s possible to print tiny numbers and react quickly if demand suddenly arises. If digital printing has allowed more plays to be published, the other factor driving sales is increasing demand from theatres to sell a play script rather than the traditional programme. Audiences like a cheap memento of a good night out. Many theatres carry some of the risk for the publisher by buying discounted copies outright, not on a sale-or-return basis.
Once a playwright would have needed a significant track record before they could get their work into print, but the expansion in play publishing means it is now common for first plays by unknown writers to be published even if the play has only had a run at the Edinburgh Fringe. But then Tom Stoppard was once a young playwright whose first effort, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, had only been staged at the Edinburgh Fringe. Just think of the returns for a publisher if they had signed him up then.
Devised work, often created by people who would describe themselves as theatremakers rather than playwrights, is also finding its way on to the shelves. They are often in editions in which the innovation of the original show’s form is reflected in the way design and image are used alongside text on the page.
It’s as much a form of documentation as publishing and means the experiments of theatremakers such as Javaad Alipoor – whose hit show The Believers Are But Brothers was published complete with memes, although for legal reasons the Isis ones had to be excluded – are no longer as ephemeral as they once would have been.
The published text may not be the same as seeing the production, but it gives a sense of it. The act of publishing provides access and may well have a knock-on effect in inspiring the next generation of theatremakers. Reading texts is a viable, cheap way students and young theatremakers often find out about theatre, particularly if they live far from London or can’t afford tickets.
But both O’Hanlon and Hern do wonder whether the market is being saturated and sales diluted by the rush to sign up playwrights when they are just starting out. Unless a writer goes on to have a significant career, there is often only a short window of opportunity – during the run itself – to sell copies. It’s no surprise that advances are mostly tiny, often just a few hundred pounds.
Of course, being published feels momentous, and choosing the right publisher for your work is crucial. Some playwrights already have a fierce emotional attachment to a particular publisher because they have read the plays of other writers that are published by that house.
Hern says he had no problem snapping up Kirkwood because it was important to her to be published by the same house that published Caryl Churchill. O’Hanlon says many younger playwrights grew up on the iconic Methuen collected editions, so are drawn to join him at Bloomsbury.
But he also points out that young playwrights need to take as much care about choosing their publisher as they do about choosing their agent. Hern agrees: “There is a lot of loyalty – playwrights seldom leave a publisher – so it’s a long-term relationship and one that needs nurturing.” He and the company’s managing director and commissioning editor, Matt Applewhite, split the list between them, with Hern dealing with well-established playwrights and Applewhite searching out rising stars.
O’Hanlon warns that in the rush to get published, young playwrights sometimes neglect to think that once a play is in print it can be out in the world forever, meaning a very early play is there for all to see. “Of course, plays are revised. We do that all the time, often around a new production. But what we can’t do is call back the copies of the text that was originally published and sold. It’s out there in the world. It lives on.”