The Publishing Business: a review

The publishing business: from p-books to e-books by Kelvin Smith (AVA, 2012) is an introductory textbook aimed primarily at students on Publishing Studies courses. Though the book is international in scope, the implied reader is I think UK-based.

The book is designed to be appealing and accessible. Wide pages with text divided into up to three columns per page, liberal use of white space, colour, illustrations, and boxes — every effort has been made to avoid confronting the reader with off-putting slabs of ext. The publishers’ production budget has not been penny pinching.

The content is wide-ranging. Subjects include (to quote from the table of contents): the fundamentals of publishing; the choices publishers make; writers, readers and intermediaries, editorial processes, design and production, print and electronic publishing, and marketing, sales and distribution.

The great strength of the book is the inclusion of concrete material in the form of case studies and boxes, supplemented by passages of descriptive or informative prose. Examples of case studies include Bertelsmann and Random House, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and Persephone Books.

Overall, the book seems to me to fulfil its function. It takes students backstage and introduces them without fuss to the main components and processes of the industry.

There are, however, some points that I’d hope the publishers might attend to in a subsequent edition. Principally:

1. The issue of the environmental impact of the industry, in which I guess many students will be interested, is dealt with in an ultra-perfunctory way (limited mostly to a paragraph on damaging effects of paper). This issue is more multi-faceted, complex, and downright interesting than you’d guess from this book.

2. There is little on corporate behaviour and finance is largely ignored. How is corporate strategy formulated? What drives mergers and acquisitions and what effect do they have? What do company balance sheets and profit and loss statements look like? Terms such as ‘capital’, ‘cash flow’, ‘equity’, ‘merger’, ‘scale’ and ‘shareholder’ don’t feature in the index. Though publishing students are unlikely to move straight into senior management roles, their working lives will certainly be affected by corporate affairs: why not help them to navigate?

3. The industry is confronting a number of lively, at times contentious, debates. Though the book does mention some, the treatment tends to be bland and middle of the road: this is a pity, since the reader is likely to miss some of the energy that drives the industry. Publishing isn’t bloodless and textbooks needn’t be.

4. The description of the people who work in the industry is, for the most part, rather abstract. Publishing has always benefited from rich characters: why not introduce the reader to some of them and allow their own voices to be heard – for example, through interviews? I note too that there’s no index entry for ‘diversity’.

5. The passages I read and then re-read most closely are those concerning the area I know best, namely academic and professional publishing. They strike me as sensible rather than expert. For example, the two paragraphs devoted to monographs include the following:

Monographs have low sales (getting lower as academic library budgets decrease each year), and an academic monograph may not sell more than 10 copies. This means that prices for such printed books have become high, reducing sales still further in a vicious cycle of rising prices and diminishing sales, and leading to the e-publication of much monograph publishing. (p. 49)

This may fairly be described as imbalanced and so lacking in nuance as to be misleading. The reader would never guess that:

a. monograph publishing — by companies specialising in the genre and by more general academic and professional publishers — has proved resilient, precisely because many monographs sell more than 100 copies;

b. the share of academic libraries’ acquisition budgets that has been devoted to book acquisition has been more of a problem than the size of the budgets overall;

c. monograph publishers aren’t all stupid. Against the ‘our sales are declining, so we better put up the prices — oh, no, that’s reduced our sales! — guess we’d better put up the prices again — oh, no!’ caricature, students need to hear the view that, if we control costs carefully, there seem to be price points (perhaps expensive for individuals but not for libraries) at which institutional sales are sufficient to sustain publishing programmes, so let’s settle for that model;

d. e-publication would happen regardless of the process and sales of print books and, far from representing a last-ditch manoeuvre, has attracted publishers not least because, combined with the effect of patron-driven acquisition, digitalisation has given new life to the backlist.

The terms ‘academic publishing’, ‘scholarly publishing’, and ‘STM publishing’ appear in the index: ‘academic and professional publishing’ and ‘professional publishing’ don’t. Overall, the handling here doesn’t inspire confidence.

Overall, I find that when I’m asked for guidance from a prospective recruit to the industry, I do recommend the book, though with no more than two cheers. I’ve added it to my ‘HTG a job in publishing‘ page above, though not to my ‘Publisher’s bookcase‘. Many textbooks only really get into their stride in their second editions: perhaps that will be the case here.



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