A theory of publishing, Act III: Accounting for diversity
This series of posts is focused on diversity between publishing houses. Why is it that the same book proposal will achieve different outcomes, depending on which houses it is sent to? In the previous post I argued that each publishing house could be thought of as constituting a distinct sentence (or set of sentences). But this raises the question, what accounts for the differences between those sentences — why don’t publishing houses constitute identical sentences?
Empirically, there are many reasons. The staple of literature about publishing is the company history and each history accounts for the distinctiveness of its subject. But here I’m interested in the typical reasons for diversity — what in general accounts for the diversity of outcomes that would follow from the same book proposal?
I suggest that there are two factors. First, each house constitutes a bundle of agreements with stakeholders. The most long-term and stable of these are formal contracts. Alongside these are shorter term or less formal agreements, for example in the form of purchase orders and letters of agreement. And then there are still less formal, though sometimes very long-term, relationships in the form of networks. All three kinds are relevant, though my focus here is on the least flexible of these, namely contracts.
These agreements define a publishing house’s relationships with its customers, suppliers, employees, and associates. On these agreements will depend what ensues from a specific publishing process.
For example, one British publishing house might have little capacity to publish directly in North America, where they prefer to co-publish. Perhaps too they sell translation rights to other export markets via a third-part agent. The house might have an effective, though indirect, relationship with the domestic trade through their distributors, who supply direct to shops and also to retailers. Perhaps they place most of their printing with one printer, but use a different firm for short-run and on-demand printing. And they tend to recruit staff through a specialist agency.
Another house might sell copies direct in North America. And they might, say, sell translation rights direct, though the effectiveness of this arrangement might be limited by the number of book fairs they attend — perhaps they go only to London and Frankfurt. Perhaps they have strong relationships with international library suppliers, including suppliers of ebooks. They have little relationship with national mass media and rarely get their books reviewed, other than in specialist publications. Perhaps they shop around for printers on an ad hoc relationship. They often promote from in and, for recruitment, rely on networking supplementing by advertising in the trade press. Some of their employees started as interns.
Let us suppose that an author has a book proposal that both houses would, potentially, be interested in. How the book fares will vary as a result of the differences in the types of arrangements outlined above. Perhaps the former house sells a higher number of copies in America, but because of co-publishing discounts achieves no greater royalty for the author. Perhaps that house does well with co-publishing agreements in the Commonwealth too and sells the Chinese language rights. Print copies look identical and bear a close relationship to the house’s other publications. The author is chuffed to see reviews in the mainstream press.
Alternatively, perhaps the latter house picks up a few deals for Spanish language rights and assorted eastern European territories. Through suppliers, it does some tidy business with libraries in various territories. Because of this market, it’s able to maintain a higher cover price and also to sell an ebook edition, perhaps over a period of years, at prices well above the Kindle-style bargain basement price points. The author receives a few enquiries about her/his consultancy services as a result of trade press coverage. The person who ends up marketing the book was, at contract stage, the editorial assistant.
And so on. The outcomes — for the publishers, the author, for consumers, and for the book itself — will vary according to the agreements in place. Which house is preferable will depend on the context.
A second factor is corporate memory. Let us consider again the former publishing house above. Perhaps there are certain kinds of books that that house ‘gets’: that is, it understands them and knows how to succeed with them. It is difficult to say where exactly this kind of corporate history resides. In fact, it will be dispersed amongst a number of sites — for example, the editor’s head, the sales data, the lists of reviews copies, and the design production department’s archive. If another book of the kind that it ‘gets’ — the latest in a series on military history, say — it’s likely to do an efficient job. The amount of thinking and the number of decisions to be made will be minimised, as will (as a result) the likelihood of misunderstandings or errors of judgement.
But what if a new kind of book — new to that house, at least — comes along? It may do fine: perhaps the novelty energises the staff. But the risk of misjudgements is certainly higher. So too is the likelihood that the house will somewhat reduce the degree of novelty by treating the new book as much like the usual kind as possible.
For example, an academic publisher that attempts to publish occasional trade (i.e., consumer) books may use a largish page format, not because that is optimal for the book in question, but because – well, that’s just what they do.
The combined effects of these two factors — bundles of agreements, plus corporate memory — can be strong in terms of maintaining differences between houses. Indeed, the factors can work in tandem, each constraining the other.
One might argue that movement in staff between houses would serve to reduce these differences. Publishing, like many creative industries, exhibits some degree of geographical concentration. In the UK, the main centres are London, the area around the M25 (the outer ring road for London), and Oxford. The concentration facilitates staff movement between companies. So let us suppose that the former house above recruits a member of staff from the latter. This may indeed result in a change in the new employer’s practices. Perhaps, for example, they experiment with a different printer: the recruit has used them at her/his previous company and reports that they did a good job.
This effect is not, however, as strong as one might expect. After a while, usually quite a short while, there is a tendency for recruits to go native — that is, to adopt the mindset of the employer they have moved to. And so the effects, of agreements and of corporate history, can persist over time.