A theory of book publishing, Act V: book publishing as a capitalist pursuit

The development of the printing press was a thoroughly capitalist affair. The plant required was expensive: financing it required a large lump sum. Because, in the early days, publishing and printing tended to be combined functions, it follows that publishing too tended to be a capitalist affair.

Over time, the two functions became unbundled: printers printed and publishers outsourced their printing requirements to them. This reduced publishers’ capital requirement.

But traditional printing methods entail set-up costs: to obtain economical unit costs, publishers typically had to order large print runs. To do so, capital was required. In modern times, the sums required have been, in the case of most projects, quite modest. For example, the total cost (defined as payment to printers and other suppliers, such as typesetters, and so excluding staff and office costs) of a typical monograph has always been below £5,000.

Still, that’s not nothing — you can buy a second-hand car or two or three good holidays for that. And, in traditional publishing, there are economies of scale, so publishing houses have typically needed programmes of a certain scale. Publishing a few dozen monographs per year takes the requirement for into six figures.

Digital printing, which enables cost-effective short runs, changes the equation. The threshold capital requirement comes crashing down. Micro-publishing and even self-publishing can be made profitable. Individuals with no more than modest means can publish commercially.

Does this mean that publishing is no longer essentially a capitalist affair?

The answer is no.

Types of capital

The reason for this answer is that, as economic theory has increasingly recognised, capital is not confined to the two types referred to above, namely financial capital and technological capital. There is no consensus on how many types of capital there are — how you categorise capital depends on your purpose — but from the point of view of book publishing theory, I propose the following taxonomy:

  1. financial capital
  2. technological capital
  3. human capital
  4. social capital
  5. cultural capital
  6. natural capital.

I’ve covered (1) and (2) above. What about (3) – (6)?

The theory sketched in the preceding posts has drawn attention to human capital in two respects. First, limitations in human capital impose limitations on publishing: I have argued that the range of publications that each house can manage effectively is limited by the extent of its corporate memory.

Second, good publishing requires ‘publish-icity’ — my ungainly neologism for the ability to ensure that all aspects of the publishing process work in harmony. It is, of course, entirely possible that a self-publisher will possess this quality, but it is by no means necessarily the case: my argument is that this factor has typically gone unrecognised when classical publishing has been weighed against self-publishing.

Obviously, many other forms of human capital are involved — the skills involved in editing and design, for example. But such skills are probably more widespread (though the industry seems short of digital and data analysis skills) or, crucially, easier to procure through outsourcing, than is publish-icity.

My theory involves social capital in one place in particular. I’ve argued that a company’s effectiveness is in part a function of its bundle of agreements with other parties. Some of these agreements do not require social capital. Pretty well any publishing company could, for example, open an account with a print-on-demand service such as Lightning Source. Still, partners willingness to trade — and one’s knowledge of potential partners in the first place — is a function of social capital.

For example, our company has a number of long-standing relationships with suppliers. They include The Running Head (text design and typesetting), Benn Linfield (typesetting and cover design), and Carr Design Studios (cover design). The quality of our publishing depends hugely on the quality of their services — and our enjoyment of publishing lies in part on the professionalism of their dealings. In turn, we’ve always been happy to pass them our business.

In most cases, our suppliers consist of people or companies that I had worked with in corporate publishing. In the case of The Running Head, that is not the case — I came across them through an internet search. Even there, though, our decision to approach and commission them was in part because I knew, or at least knew of, some of their trading partners.

The main way in which my theory has involved cultural capital is through the role assigned to branding. Branding can help to differentiate classical publishing and self-publishing. In some cases, the self-publisher might be a bigger consumer brand than the publisher — for example, where the self-publisher is already recognised as a guru in a particular field. On the other hand, when it comes to B2B branding (the kind of branding most relevant in the supply chain), the classical publisher is likely to have the advantage.

Though discussion of cultural capital in relation to book publishing is quite common, I suspect that most publishers’ cultural capital, beyond the B2B aspect of branding, is in fact rather weak. The cultural capital required is provided more by their content and their authors than by the publishers themselves.

Natural capital refers to the stock of assets (broadly defined) provided by the environment and its ecology. I have not referred to natural capital in this series of posts, though I have elsewhere. In this theory, I will leave the subject of natural capital to an epilogue.


Book publishers’ need to access technological capital has for a very long time been met primarily through outsourcing to printing companies. The requirement for financial capital has been lowered by the advent of short-run digital printing. Cultural capital does not seem to be a bulwark of the industry. But human and social capital remain important sources of competitive advantage.

Book publishing remains a strongly capitalist endeavour — just not in the way that most people think.


2 Responses to “A theory of book publishing, Act V: book publishing as a capitalist pursuit”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Very few employees recognise the value, importance and collaborative power – to survive and thrive – of social capital. Fortunately, 95% of all businesses are micro (0-9 employees) and most of their owners do. Next #MicroBizMattersDay – 10 million in at least 10 countries – January 13 2017

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