by PAUL BURNS
THE announcement in February of the impending closure of Burns & Oates after more than 120 years of Catholic publishing was reported' in the CATHOLIC RAW. ironically, the week after a profile of 'the firm had appeared, the last in a series devoted to the five major publishers of Catholic books in Britain and Ireland. The profile ended with an optimistic look at the future as one of diversification and expansion along both traditional lines and new lines that the firm was then successfully developing.
While the sudden decision to close it down was not entirely unexpected in same prescient quarters, it was obviously a shock of some magnitude to
most of the people closely involved and will, I believe, Come to be seen as a major tragedy in the intellectual life of the English speaking Catholic world. It seems right that the occasion, for itself and for the lessons it contains, should not pass from memory without something more than a brief report of its occurrence,
Why did it happen? To most
people outside the religious
publishing fraternity times
seemed to be good. The number of religio,us titles published each year had grown many times over the decade. New religious publishers had appeared on the scene and appeared to be flourishing. The books published by Burns & Oates in the religious field were firmly committed to renewal in the Church, and that was surely what we all wanted?
But there was cause for alarm in all these factors. There were too many religious titles published, and they mostly did not sell in sufficient numbers to pay their way. Too many books chasing too few readers. The new religious publishers were of course rivals as well as colleagues and friends.
Writing on the wall
Starting off at a hopeful time, with the Council round the corner and an unprecedented interest in religion beginning to seize the mass media, they gathered momentum quickly. Unhampered by any weight of tradition, they were perhaps able to adopt a more flexible attitude to what the scope of a religious publisher should be. Interest in renewal the Church lost its optimism and lisri within a year or two of the Council, when it became clear that change was too fast for some, not fast enough for others, and proceeding in a manner that seemed to please almost no one. After "Humanae Vitae" it took a further dive, as many of those who had been inspired by the Council and concerned in the debates that followed it felt that the last straw had been added to their burden of growing disillusionment.
But the writing on the wall had been read in advance by the publishers, including Burns & Oates, and to say that they simply failed to move with the times would be not only oversimplified, but untrue. An era of stability had been replaced by one of rapid, and accelerating change, but the publishers led rather than dragged behind in the change. Perhaps too fast; almost certainly not too slowly.
The task of adaptation was greater for Burns & Oates than for the other, newer publishers. It had a huge backlist of titles that were rapidly outdated, having been faithful and profitable servants for years. And who would now produce 1,000 pages on "The Teaching of the Catholic Church", let alone expect it to last through several generations of seminarians yet to come — what seminarians, for a start? And having relied for a very large
proportion of its sales on the
steady reprints of its missals (remember those, with their two-colour print and beautiful leather 'bindings?) it found this removed almost overnight with the introduction of vernacular Mass and then the liturgical changes.
'that was very nearly the end for far bigger and wealthier liturgical publishing houses on the Continent, but Burns & Oates had been at
least relatively prudent with its stocks, and rode out the storm.
It needed to find new sources of revenue to replace the lost missal and prayerhook sales, and looked for them in a wider-ranging and certainly more forward-looking range of theological publications.
The post-Conciliar years saw a steady stream of books on the general theme of
renewal. Probably too many, though it is easy to be wise after the event. If the list was "light" in some spheres that were currently attracting attention (the Lumen Vitaeled catechetical boom. for example, and the demand for
new hymns), it was hardly alone in having its gaps, and in some fields was very strong indeed.
The growing respect in which it was held both by its rivals and by those of its reading public with which its executives came into contact at centres like Spode House, was evidence that it was not editorial policy that was responsible for the fact that even in these apparently healthy days, the firm turned in a series of substantial annual losses.
So what was going wrong? The changing climate itself is not sufficient explanation, though of course a major factor..If it was not the choice of books that was wrong. and if other firms could flourish with books that were apparently (and. let's be honest, actually) no better, then it had to be something inside the firm, something to do with management and organisation, something that happened to the books once they were taken on.
Yet they were decently presented (though it is hardly the present writer's place to say so). No sales department could have worked harder to sell them. and they were at least adequately, and sometimes even forcefully promoted. Could the trouble he looked
for in the fact that Burns & Oates, alone of the five major publishers of Catholic books at the time (1965-7), was part of a group.
Communication and distribution
This group, BOW Holdings, was concerned with communication and distibution in the field of Catholic newspapers, periodicals, books and "devotional article". There is less of it left now than there was then. It should have been a source of strength. but I believe instead led to both basic structural fault and an alienation from the firm's products of the new public that Burns & Oates was trying to reach.
The management fault was that there was a split in the executive board between those who were also directors of and shareholders in the Holding Company and those who, though called directors of Burns & Oates, were in fact no more than executives, and were required to contribute to the decision-making process in ignorance of the financial affairs of the company, let alone the group.
This ignorance was in time remedied as far as the cornpany went, but by the time the solely executive directors learned the financial state of the company, negotiations for its sale were under way.
The alienation of the public was caused by the fact that the public image of Burns & Oates (or rather that non-existent animal "Burns Oates") was projected through the shops that bore the same (or rather a similar) name. So. "Burns Oates" sad to say, meant plaster statues to much of its potential, and indeed actual, public long after the publishing firm had committed itself to a religion in which these played no part.
With effect from 1 February, 1967, control of Burns & Oates passed from BOW Holdings to Herder of Freiburg, and many brave words were spoken about a final haven for the firm
after its long and chequered history. A bit hollow they sound now, to say the least.
Negotiations had been protracted and by no means smooth. Those whose futures were to he most vitally affected were neither consulted nor informed. and had to inform themselves through rumour and subterfuge. (The extent to which they did so, and the hidden hand they took in the proceedings, would read like a chapter from a detective novel were personal considerations ever to permit them to he written, which is unlikely.) But in the end they entered into the new arrangement with
degree of confidence in the benefits to be expected from membership of (by religious publishing standards) a very substantial international group. In particular, advantages were to he found in close collaboration with the flourishing New York company of Herder and Herder, and in the superb printing facilities offered by the
parent company, as well as its
undoubted expertise in initiating huge international ventures such as `Sacramentum Mundi', the six-volume encyclopedia of theology.
Economic circumstances outside the control of either parent or subsidiary soon contributed to difficulties. Importation and distribution of American books was to he one of the main ways of increasing turnover. Apart from the fact that they never sold as well as expected, they built up a dollar debt that suddenly leapt up when the pound was devalued.
The advantages of having a printer in the family were also eroded, first by devaluation of the pound, they by revaluation of the German mark, until Burns & Oates was paying considerably more than it need have done for a large part of its production. The strength found in the German and American links had become a crushing financial burden.
The composition of the board repeated the two-tier structure of the BOW Holdings days, and Burns & Oates had a managing director whose first interests lay elsewhere. Though no one could have worker harder, he was placed in an impossible position. And inevitably the fact that he was in the first place President of Herder and Herder and in the second managing director of Burns & Oates led to suspicions that the interests of Burns & Oates were being sacrificed to those of the American company.
If they were this was certainly not intentional on his part. But things just look different from across the Atlantic, and the British Commonwealth market in many ways does not yet resemble the American market. Burns & Oates had a. position in its market, a long reputation and a considerable fund of goodwill. Instead of capitalising on this, the name was gradually blurred, through such measures as insisting that the names of both Burns & Oates and Herder and Herder should appear on the title page of 'books originating in America. Reasons were given for this, but the last thing that Burns & Oates needed, after its history of confusion of names, was a further source of confusion.
This was a small thing, in a way. but symptomatic of a wider attitude. Herder had established branches in many countries, but had not before taken over a foreign company which, though tiny by com parison, had a tradition almost as long as Herder's own, and one of which, whatever the failures of past and present, the staff were rightly proud.
Strengthening and extension
So a conviction (presumably) that the interests of Burns & Oates would be better served by a strengthening and. extension of the image of Herder in the Commonwealth market came up against a conviction that the interests of both Burns & Oates, and the group as a whole, would benefit more from the promotion of Burns & Oates in its traditional market.
Which would have, in fact, led to better results we shall now never know. All we do know is that the view that prevailed did not produce success. And when the accounants' axe fell, Burns & Oates was just one branch among many in line for the chop. Such, alas, is the logic of capitalism.
Such, indeed, is the system. And until some revolutionary panacea is shown to work, it
misgivings quietened and a fair
is difficult to see what can be done about it. A firm simply has to grow and develop if it is to survive, and for this it simply has to earn a certain percentage on capital employed. In the field of religious publishing, the only alternative found to this so far has been ownership by a Hierarchy or religious order, with the resulting loss of editorial independence.
It has always been the strength of Catholic publishing in England that its newspaper and book publishers were independent and lay. This is in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, and as it should be tas the Hierarchy would almost certainly be among the first to recognise). So let's not shed any tears over the fact that that way out was not available.
But tactically, there was another one: yet another stable for Burns & Oates. And here one can only gasp at the fact that the decision to close down was announced before all possible avenues to find another buyer had been explored. Could there have been here an assumption that because Herder had failed to make a success of Burns & Oates, the task was beyond human capability, and therefore no buyer would ever be found? Or was it simply panic?
The speed with which it was done precludes the possibility of calling it a fully considered decision. Public Relations may be a minor aspect of the total operation of a firm, but it has some importance, and one can hardly imagine a more bizarre exercise in Public Relations than this. What was, whatever its right and wrongs, a financial decision pure and simple, is now open to popular interpretation as at best a panic measure and at worst a piece of naked imperialism: an impression that one would have expected a German firm to go to almost any lengths to avoid giving.
There is no chauvinism intended in that remark—just an appreciation of the obvious fact that it exists. The parent company has left itself with an unnecessarily damaged reputation, not to mention an unnecessarily difficult sales proposition.
On the financial wisdom of the decision I am in no position to comment. One can only conclude, in reason as well as charity, that the powers that be having taken the best financial advice available to them, saw no viable alternative. Fair enough, given the system, but how far is financial wisdom the sum total of commercial wisdom?
Has an accurate appraisal really been made of the editorial contribution that Burns & Oates could have made to the whole group in the next few years, which are bound to be difficult, for example? Was a few months really long enough to test the effectiveness of an editorial team doubled in strength as recently as last August? Who, in the last analysis, was time really runing out for? One would like to think that a new buyer would be able to find this out to his advantage, but the decision to close and its announcement have robbed him of much of this possibility. What confidence can authors feel in the imprint now?
Dashing of new hopes
Here, of course, one is in the realms of subjective judgment,
and it may well be that the possibilities one sees for the future simply were not there. But several pointers indicate that they were: the success of the "Leisure Crafts" series in opening up new markets, and the plans for development of other series along similar lines; the solid achievements in one religious field that still had a good head of steam: religious education; the success of 'Sacramentum Mundi,' with the growing expertise in selling large projects by direct mail; the developing liaison with centres of higher education, with its promise of syllabusgeared hooks in a rapidly ex
panding field . So much was just around the corner that one is lamenting not so ...kich the demise of a long tradition, which on its own would be sentimental, as also the nipping in the bud of a newly promising venture.
And, above all, the dashing of new hopes. Because the passing (if such it is to be) of an old name, and even the sacrifice of future earnings (if such might have been the case) are ultimately less important than what has been done to the people involved.
Some of course will be released from continual anxiety and freed to give of their best elsewhere — I should presumably count myself among them. But how glad are they?
There was, as the Editor of The Tablet, speaking from experience, remarked at the time, a "mystique about Burns & Oates". It commanded an extraordinary degree of loyalty among its staff, several of whom had indeed devoted their entire working lives— over 45 years in some cases— to it.
This loyalty was by no means confined to the older members, however. Even those who had just joined soon felt the atomsphere, which can only described as one of love for one another (which, as in marriage, should not be taken to exclude a fair share of grumbling), and pinned their hopes as much on this. as on the intrinsic interest of the e.ib they were doing.
Their tears on hearing the news are in a sense a greater tribute than those of the "old guard". They are young and will find other jobs with relative ease; they had less reason to feel so strongly. But they did, and those who came from Freiburg to help are by no means excluded.
A community will disappear —has already broken up to a large extent. The last few years had brought together an executive team unified in generation and outlook, full of ideas and life. They formed a community that knew how to work together and play together, and for a time they were happy.
Paul Burns was Director of Publishing Management at Burns & Oates.