A theory of book publishing, Act II: Publishing as a language

In The merchants of culture, John B. Thompson likens the workings of the book publishing industry to a ‘grammar’. Like Thompson, I here adopt a linguistic metaphor. But I think ‘grammar’ is too restrictive. For the purposes of lateral thinking, we need to bring in other aspects of language, such as syntax, lexis, semantics, and pragmatics.

Consider the following sentence (commonly used for typing practice):

(1) A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog

And some possible variants:

(2) A quick brown fox jumps athletically over the lazy dog

(3) Fox jumps over dog

(4) A quick brown hat-stand jumps over the lazy translation

(5) Fox a quick brown fox jumps the dog lazy over

(6) A quick the lazy

 

Though (1) sounds rather odd, it is a perfectly good sentence. It is grammatical (as a subject-verb-object sentence) and it is meaningful. It’s even rather clever – not only because it very efficiently incorporates all the letters of the alphabet, but also because  it can be remembered in the form of a mental image.

(2) is also perfectly good. In some ways it is less efficient, but it is also richer: the inclusion of an adverb makes for a more complete treatment.

(3) is good too: it might form a (boring) newspaper headline or telegram. It’s efficient, but impoverished.

(4) makes sense grammatically – the subject-verb-object structure remains. But the change in lexis has rendered the semantics nonsensical.

(5) is a bad sentence — or, rather, no sentence at all. I think of it as an Eric Morecambe sentence: it contains all the right words, but ‘not necessarily in the right order’.

(6) is too truncated to form a sentence.

 

I suggest that we can draw an analogy with publishing. Each component of the publishing process can be thought of as a component in a sentence (or, indeed, non-sentence). Such components include: commissioning and acquisition; contracting and gaining permissions; development editing; copy-editing; proofreading; indexing; translation; text design and typesetting; artwork and photography; cover design and production; procurement; printing and reprinting; binding; ebook conversion; providing bibliographic data; marketing, publicity and promotion; selling (copies, rights, and permissions); warehousing, distribution, and fulfilment; archiving; paying royalties; remaindering; and managing returns. There are also numerous less industry-specific components — financing, accounting, reporting, recruiting, employing, training, managing, formulating corporate strategy, and so on.

Not all these components need be present. I’ve heard one Managing Director tell me, ‘We don’t have a marketing department’, whilst another told me, ‘We don’t do publicity’. In each case, the missing component functioned as, in effect, the optional adverb (‘athletically’) that differentiated #2 from #1.

But if too many of the components are omitted, we would end up with a malfunctioning or even non-existent sentence (#5 or #6).

It is tempting to seek to equate each component with a particular part of speech, But that is a matter for parlour games rather than for theory. In my experience, each department likes to think of itself as the main verb.

From the point of view of theory, the key points are:

  • a minimal set of components is required;
  • the components that are present need to be aligned.

Where this is the case, the publishing house equates to #1-3, depending on the comprehensiveness of the service.

Where the components are not (well) aligned, we end up with, at best, #4.

 

Alignment

What does alignment mean here? ‘Alignment’ refers to the question of how well the various components of a publishing house fit together. Take the example of textbook publishing in higher education. The text and figures may be developed to suit existing educational courses (taking account such things as educational level, pedagogical practices, and curricular and assessment requirements); the marketing may be targeted at the lecturers who might adopt the book (they will, for example, likely be offered inspection copies), plus the collection librarians in the same institutions; and warehouse stocks will be reviewed and replenished prior to adoption season (typically, at the start of the academic year).

In such a case, the components are well aligned. Here the whole (the success of the operation) will at least equal the sum of the parts. But supposing some component is missing? For example, the marketing department lacks the ability to contact potential adopters (because, for example, they lack the necessary contact lists or do not have the personnel to exploit them) or has not created an effective mechanism for offering and providing inspection copies. In this case, even if the other components are excellent (the development editor, for example, has helped the authorial team to produce a text ideally suited to the market) — and even if the marketing department itself is good at those things it does do (producing pages on the website, for example), there will be underperformance: the whole will be less than the sum of the parts.

All this might sound obvious. In which case, one might think such misalignment is readily avoided. Whilst such misalignment is theoretically possible, does it occur in practice? And, if so, does it ever persist?

The answer to both question is, ‘Yes, frequently!’ In my career I have seen, and continue to see, misalignment on a regular basis. To take, by way of illustration, one example, I helped an author obtain a contract for a scholarly monograph. The book was commissioned, contracted, and written on that basis. The sales forecast was for a few hundred copies in hardback, at a price aimed at institutional libraries. The design department then produced a beautiful four-colour dust jacket, complete with a photograph for which they bought copyright permission. I dare say that the designer was pleased with her/his work: everyone agreed it looked attractive and, I’m pleased to say, the author was especially chuffed. The book would, no doubt, look great in a bookshop — would do so, if only bookshops stocked expensive hardbacks. Doubtless, too, it would look attractive to individual readers — except they don’t buy expensive hardbacks. Libraries do buy such things and did in fact buy this book in pleasing numbers. They buy such books through sales plans provided through library suppliers, based on bibliographic data. If they receive a copy with its dust jacket intact, they will remove the jacket before shelving the book.

 

Why misalignment?

Many scenarios produce misalignment. For example:

a) a company might suffer from silo-isation, where each department does its own thing and no department regards inter-departmental co-ordination as its own responsibility. (In my experience – though how typical this is, I’m not sure – when it comes to destroying value through silo-isation-based misalignment, university presses are unsurpassed.)

b) a company might have insufficiently robust ways of coding projects, What begins life, at commissioning stage, as a textbook might not be signalled to the marketing and sales department as such a thing. It may then receive a marketing and sales treatment more appropriate to some other genre.

c) a company might acquire lists from another company. Some of the titles acquired may not align with the acquiring company’s processes.

d) an organisation might publish content, whilst lacking specialist knowledge of publishing. Such organisations can include charities, think tanks, and public sector bodies.

 

Practical corollaries

From this conception of the publishing process as akin to sentence formation, several practical corollaries follow. In particular:

  1. The process may be improved by improving a specific component. To continue the analogy: just as we might make the verb in #1 more concise by replacing the two words ‘jumps over’ with ‘hurdled’, so we might improve the marketing department by upgrading their software.
  2. The process might be improved by adding components. For example, a small company might lack the means to sell translation rights. As it grows, it might appoint a rights manager, establish a rights database, and perhaps visit trade fairs. In the linguistic analogy, this equates to moving from #3 to #1 (or #1 to #2).
  3. But the process might also be improved by improving, not the components themselves, but the alignment between them (moving, as it were from #4 to #1). To give two positive examples here: the MD who told me that his company didn’t have a publicity department in fact ran a well aligned company (it published textbooks, which benefit little from publicity); likewise with the MD whose company had no marketing department — it published consumer books that found readers through such methods as media coverage.
  4. Given that alignment is far from automatic, a company can benefit from, as it were, knowing what kind of sentence it is. Once this kind of self-knowledge is achieved, the various components can work in collaboration. If, for example, the commissioning editor knows what kinds of books the marketing and sales department can succeed with, the editor can commission accordingly — rather than commission other types of books and then blame colleagues when they don’t succeed. We can say that accurate prediction and efficient allocation of resources depends on understanding the sentence that the company constitutes.
  5. Wherever a company publishes more than one sort of book (many companies, after all, consist each of a set of parallel sentences), an effective means is required for coding each book. Failure to code books accurately (for example, through the way that records are entered on a database) results in, in effect, trying to get hat-stands to jump over dogs (or, worse, over translations).

 

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