Texts on publishing (II)

There are few classic works on publishing, but Stanley Unwin’s The Truth about Publishing (George Allen & Unwin, 1926) is surely one of them. After many years of intending to read it, I finally did so when I was very kindly sent a copy by my friends and erstwhile colleagues Emma Cook and David Barker. I suppose my attraction to the book now is partly to that copy – which is of the 2nd edition, also published in 1926 (one month after the 1st). Printed on cream paper with a blue binding with gold blocking, it looks a classic. But I’m attracted too by the classic content.

Its attraction in part in period charm. A sample profit and loss account allocates a total cost of £296 5s 6d to the production of a 95,000 word novel. A table of statistics indicates that the US published approx. 9,000 titles a year. There is a discussion of ‘colonial rights’. And so on.

My favourite passage comes from the discussion of sales representation dealing with the ‘country traveller’ ( carefully differentiated from the ‘town traveller’). The very notion evokes a lost world of branch lines and coloured counties.

Yet Unwin’s guidance isn’t all so out of date. Certainly a good deal of it would still have applied when I first went into publishing – in the 1990s, when one assumed that books were things that were printed. Some of it applies even now (we are still publishing books in print form, after all). For example, on titles: “It is desirable both that the title should be short and that it should accurately describe the book, two conditions that frequently seem incompatible. the difficulty can sometimes be solved by the addition of a sub-title … Fanciful titles which convey no meaning and might equally well be used for almost any kind of book are invariably a mistake”. I had to say something to that effect to an author earlier this week.

The most apposite passages are those on the seductiveness of the run-on. “If an edition of three thousand copies represents the demand … there is obviously no point in printing  thirty thousand, even though the thirty thousand copies could each be produced infinitely more cheaply … I have in mind one particular firm now out of business which recently ran through £30,000 largely as the result of over-production of that kind … A large proportion had to be pulped.” A shame nobody & Dorling Kindersley ever read that.

Most valuable is the tone – both hard- and level-headed, wry, and disabusing, but not disillusioned. Unwin’s approach is typified by the title of his chapter on sales: “The Actual Selling” (my italics). Actual selling, as opposed to talking about it. I think Unwin and I must have worked with some of the same sales staff.

Shame he died in 1968 because we really need a new edition.

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