A theory of book publishing, Act I: The basic situation

Commissioning content can happen in at least three ways. (I) An author might have an idea and propose it to a publisher. (II) The publisher might have the idea and propose it to an author. Or (III) the author and publisher might have a creative conversation out of which emerges a proposal that they have co-created.

For the sake of simplicity, the theory outlined on the current series of posts will assume (I).

Let us imagine that there are a number of publishing houses to which the author might send the proposal. A variety of outcomes might ensue, depending on which publisher the author selects. For example:

  • Publisher A might reject the proposal.
  • Publisher B might feel the proposal isn’t suitable in its current form, but will seek to negotiate some changes in the specification, with a view to then commissioning it.
  • Publisher C might accept the proposal and decide to publish it in a certain format — for example, in print only (for the first edition, at least), in hardback.
  • Publisher D might accept the proposal but decide to publish it with a different strategy — for example, simultaneously in paperback and as an ebook.

Further permutations are possible. For example, Publisher A might, on a different occasion, accept the proposal. Or some publisher might reject the proposal but, attracted by the author, seek to explore alternative ideas for books. Or the author might decide to self-publish. There are too, many possible publishing strategies.

But, as a way of getting started, I wish to keep things simple. From the point of view of theory, nothing hangs on the specific outcomes identified above. The point that matters is simply a single proposal can have a variety of potential outcomes.

None of the above will be in any way news to people who work in book publishing. But to those who don’t — including many prospective authors — this can indeed be news.

And it can, in addition, be the source of perplexity. In each case, it’s the same proposal: how come the variety of outcomes?

Daily life in publishing doesn’t encourage reflection on this point. There’s too much else to do. Texts need editing, covers need designing, marketing collateral needs producing, orders need fulfilling … and so on. Authors’ perplexity, to the point it is considered at all, may be put down to their naiveté.

The authors, meanwhile, might put the situation down to irrationality on the part of publishers. To an extent, they will be right: irrationality certainly plays a role in publishers’ decisions and the ways in which does so are of theoretic interest. But let us focus here on the opposite case — that is, where differences in outcome are the result of rational behaviour on the part of publishers. That will seem all the more perplexing and is, I suggest, more intriguing.

So, rather than dismiss it, I propose to take the question ‘How come the variety of outcomes?’ as the basic problem for a theory of book publishing. My contention is that formulating an answer will help to explain much else in book publishing — and possibly, by extension, in the creative industries more generally.

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