Why Publish Plays?

Do plays need to be published in the first place? Publisher Nick Hern looks at the how and the why, and what lies ahead in the age of ebooks.

Publishing plays is an odd activity – and at Nick Hern Books we publish a lot of plays: there are about 900 in print, and we add another 60 or so each year. It’s not glamorous like fiction publishing where you can be the one who actually discovers a brilliant new novelist. Nor is it essential, as it is to most writers, for whom publication is their only means of contacting their readership. A playwright’s chief conduit of communication is – and should be – the theatre. But a play publisher does fulfil a useful function in giving permanent form to an evanescent art, and thereby allowing many more people to have some kind of experience of a play than could ever see it in the theatre.

I’m often asked who actually buys playtexts. First, and most obviously, there is the audience. I have worked hard over the years to persuade theatres who stage new plays to participate in a ‘programme/text’ scheme whereby the text appears in the same volume as the theatre’s programme pages (with cast list, actors’ biographies, programme notes etc.). Anybody who has visited the Royal Court in Sloane Square since 1980, when they first made their appearance, will have been offered one of these ‘programme/texts’. Because of economies of scale and because by delivering direct from the printer to the theatre all the middlemen are cut out, we are able to reduce costs so that a book retailing at £9.99 can be offered to theatre audiences at less than half that amount. It’s a win-win situation. The audience gets a bargain, and the play finds its way into literally thousands more hands than it would if published without such a scheme in place. And this in turn means that producers, directors, actors, and above all teachers from all over the world have access to a play that they might want to make use of later – either in the theatre or in the classroom, or both.

Most of the plays we publish are, perhaps inevitably, premiered in London (though we do work with many touring and regional theatres as well, most regularly the Traverse in Edinburgh) but we need to stay aware that not everybody can get to the one theatre performing such and such a play for a relatively short run. Antony Sher writes in Year of the King (a Nick Hern Book, needless to say) that, growing up in South Africa, he was only able to feel at all in touch with theatre in England thanks to the plays being published.

Year of the King jacket

Year of the King by Antony Sher

It is amazing, looking back over thirty years, that anybody ever discovered what books were published when we had to rely on printed catalogues and the huge, encyclopaedic annual called simply Books in Print. Now, a visit to our website or indeed to Amazon will tell you in a minute – and if you want to stay right up to date, you can even go to our homepage and sign up for our monthly e-newsletter!

Playtexts also have a ready market amongst theatre practitioners, drama teachers and students, and amateur drama groups. Then, if we’re lucky, the play will start to show up on reading lists, set book lists and, when the stars are really in alignment, on exam syllabuses, which is recently the case with Kindertransport, a play we first published when it premiered on the London Fringe in April 1993. More than seventeen years later it’s a prescribed text for GCSE English. If you are a play publisher, you are in for the long haul.

KINDERTRANSPORT jacket

Kindertransport by Diane Samuels

Plays are by no means the whole story. We have an ever-increasing library of theatre books, almost all of which are written by theatre practitioners for theatre practitioners, whether these be professional actors or drama teachers in secondary schools. But plays will probably always be our bread and butter. The first Nick Hern Book was Nicholas Wright’s play, Mrs Klein, which opened at the National Theatre in August 1988 and went on to the West End and Broadway. It was particularly pleasing to see it revived so beautifully at the Almeida just over a year ago. And who knows, maybe that revival came about because the playtext was sitting on somebody’s shelf, attracting the notice of a younger generation. I like to think so.

The first edition of Mrs Klein, and the current one

As for the future, we are always on the look out for outstanding new plays from the professional theatre and for promising ideas for new books from theatre practitioners at every level. And with digital publishing now coming of age, we are about to launch our first ebooks, amongst them Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. Will this mean a sea-change in the rehearsal room as actors are required to bring their e-readers to rehearsal? I doubt it. But we know there’s an appetite for digital editions of our plays and theatre books, and not only amongst students.

JERUSALEM jacket

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth

Meanwhile there’s still a lot to be said for the good, old-fashioned book. It’s a pretty good invention. You can scribble on it, pull it apart, throw it across the room at the director, what you will. You can rely on it. For many people, it’ll take some beating. So for the time being, as well as ebooks, we’ll continue to publish editions you can put on your shelf. And from time to time I remind myself that there are more plays in print today than at any previous moment in history. It’s a comforting thought.

Look out for forthcoming posts on the NHB blog: Bruce Norris on his play Clybourne Park and administering a good punch in the face; Steve Waters on getting over a bad review; plus exclusive advice from winners of the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize. Sign up for RSS now.
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