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Britain: A Fairer Society?

The gullible and poorly informed British are almost certain to vote in 2017 to leave the European Union, in the mad belief that the country will do better without “interference from Brussels”. I can’t be certain what effect there will be on the economy, but the motives of the right-wing corporatists who are plotting this schism are clear: they do not want the kind of fairer society Europe stands for. The UK, by virtue of its imperial mythology and insular mentality, is fair game to start the break-up.

In the early 2000s I had a job as an editor in a middling-sized provincial publishing company, specialising in serious, non-fiction books. One of ten in the editorial department, five editors and four typesetters, plus our immediate boss, the production manager, who doubled as the senior editor, I was the only male. Much speculative discussion was overheard among my colleagues as to the shapeliness of my arse, sexist banter which did not upset me at all, I’m sorry to say. The company operated a laudable policy of equal pay for equal work; so, as probably the only person in the department supporting a wife, two children and a £100,000 mortgage, I soon learned what it is to live on a modern, middle-management salary designed to reward intelligent, educated, experienced, multi-skilled and productive women graduates whose essential contribution to the business drove its entire revenue-earning capacity and reputation for quality product.

We worked, usually on ten or twelve titles simultaneously, progressing books with near-total autonomy from the point at which the Commissioning Editors approved the raw typescripts and photos received from the authors, sometimes a jumble of papers in a shoebox, to the point at which the completed books were uploaded as a composite file to the printer. I don’t suppose £16,000 a year went far for my fellow editors either. Mercifully, in the second of my two-and-a-half years with the company, our new owners were persuaded to take a more realistic view of the editor’s importance to their bottom-line. The regrading exercise produced the promise of an increase to £20,000, in two stages over two years. The second stage never materialised.

The editorial process included proofreading, ensuring the complete accuracy and consistency of written texts; design and layout of the books, to a strict format, page extent and marketing brief; creation of any supplementary material such as blurbs, headings and captions; sourcing and acquiring the rights to reproduce library pictures; fact-checking; indexing; liaising with the authors, who could sometimes be temperamental (a separate treatise remains to be written on the subject of authorial “page rage”); briefing freelance proofreaders and suppliers, and struggling to push the texts, jacket designs and illustrations through the various frustrating departmental bottlenecks that could mean it taking up to six months to complete the production process for each book ­­– in the meantime, mentally juggling sometimes as many as 15 projects, all at different stages of completion and with different subjects, budgets and authors, while determining one’s own workflow for each of them.

The only people worse off than ourselves were the authors. People often read my writings and exclaim, Oh, you should write a book! No, dear reader, I should not – nor should you, when you are likely to receive an advance of no more than eight hundred pounds, plus a ten-per-cent royalty from unpredictable sales, for what could well turn into two years’ concentrated slog. Having signed the contract, your book might easily disappear from view, only to emerge on the remainder list six months later; not through any intrinsic failure of the work, but through the misjudgements and misguided optimism of the marketing department, and the notorious vicissitudes of the book trade. Remember that more than 130,000 new titles are ground out through the British publishing mincer every year, making the odds against achieving your breakthrough target of even 1,500 hardback sales virtually impregnable, regardless of quality.

Indeed, there has been much discussion recently in the media of “fairness” as a social condition in 21st-century Britain, a debate aroused by the governing coalition’s reluctance to do enough about the growing wealth gap between rich and poor. As my contribution, I should like to cite the Managing Director of the publishing company I have been describing. His remuneration, in my humble view, was neither equal nor fair.

On arriving in my new job, I found on my desk a copy of the previous year’s Annual Report and Accounts, in which the directors’ remuneration was laid out. I was surprised to find that the MD, a faceless individual I personally never met, whom I saw only once in the building during my thirty months as an employee, was being paid £240,000 a year, or 15 times my salary. On top of that, he had been granted share options worth a further £100,000; while his bonus for presiding over what appeared to have been a 15 per cent drop in profits that year was a measly £96,000, just six times my annual salary; making him worth, in total, 27 editors. Furthermore, his exalted position as the chairman’s son-in-law entitled him to a free house and a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. This, in a company turning over £5 million, must have imposed an intolerable burden on its finances.

My modest contribution to the fairness debate would be the suggestion that even private limited companies ought to be regulated so as to maximise the security of a business and its employees. Auditors should report to Companies House wherever directors’ remuneration seems disproportionate, both to the company’s revenue and to the salary of its lowest-paid employee, with an overall ratio of no more than 10:1 being the accepted norm. It cannot be right that directors, even of private companies, even when they may be the founder of the business, should be allowed to drive a company into the ground to the detriment of their employees, who then become a burden on the state. All directors of companies, even those employing only one or two staff, ought to be bound in law by a code of social responsibility. They should be made to take a “driving test” before being licensed to practice (including a psychometric profile to determine fitness).

It is one thing to allow companies to set rates they believe are “market-driven”, the profit principle should remain unassailed; but there is rational business logic, there is employee abuse, and there is taking the piss. The latter two, at least, ought to be discouraged in the new, fairer Britain.

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