And what is a book? Most of us think of books as physical objects: words and sometimes images written or printed on a thin, flexible surface which has ususally been folded, cut, and bound. But if books were merely that, then a telephone directory or mail-order catalogue would qualify as much as Don Quixote or the Canterbury Tales. To those who know and love them, books are recognizable, as forests are, and cities, by their structure (branching and rebranching), their complexity (huge), and their size (big enough to get lost in). A book is usually something we can carry in one hand, yet if it is a real book it is larger than we are: a city or forest of words that can feed us and swallow us up and transform us. A book is not a catalogue or list; it has to make more sense than that. it is not a stack of cordwood but a tree: a branching, leafing, flowering structure, unfolding in the mind, where it can find the space it needs.
– Robert Bringhurst, The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada.
Book Publishing and the Industrial Revolution
There is an essential tension between the idea of the book as literature vs. the book as manufactured object.
Book publishing has been a manufacturing business since Gutenberg in the mid-15th century. Printing was the prototype for the industrial revolution, where capital investment in machine-assisted mass production leads to low marginal costs—where commercial success is achieved by pursuing “economies of scale.” If you can produce 100 of a thing, they might cost $10 each. But if you can produce 1000 of them, the price per unit drops to, say, $7. At 10,000, they might be only $3 each. If you can manage to sell your stock , the way to profit is to maximize production. This is the fundamental logic of industrial manufacturing, and it has governed book publishing for 500 years.
Gutenberg’s innovation in the 1450s was a method of producing inexpensive hard metal matrixes from which an unlimited supply of soft metal type could be cast for use on a printing press. Once the press forme was set up, any number of pages could be printed from it.
Printing technology and businesses quickly spread across Europe. The combination of printing technology and the flowering Italian renaissance in Venice in the late 15th century cemented the form of the book and basic structure of the book industry for centuries to come. The convergence of manufacturing technology, literacy, a fledgling consumer middle class take shape around 1500 and set the tone for the next 500 years.
The modern book publishing landscape took shape over the last 150 years or so, with the mechanization of various parts of the manufacturing process (particularly typesetting and printing), and the emergence of modern consumer, educational, and scholarly markets for books.
Publishers, traditionally, have largely been those who financed the mass production and distribution of content and looked to make a profit on economies of scale. But publishers are are also the people or agencies who bring content and audiences together. This alternate definition is not a shift of function so much as a shift of emphasis; it may make more sense as we go forward into the digital era.
The Physical Book
The modern form and convention of the book was settled as of about 1500, especially by Aldus Manutius in Venice, who pioneered printing octavo editions (meaning the paper signature is folded 3 times, to make 8 sheets (16 printed pages), thereby developing a market for portable books. His press was responsible for several other printing innovations, and his line of reprinted classics, aimed at a university market, is entirely recognizable as a modern publishing model today.
The modern “hardcover” book, with sewn signatures and cloth-covered cardboard cover, dates to about the mid-19th century. In the 1930s, Penguin Books popularized the paperback, (repeating Aldus’ formula of reprinting classics in a small format and selling them relatively cheaply). The 4½” x 7″ mass-market paperback, printed on cheap pulp paper, pushed publishing to enormous scale, with print runs in the hundreds of thousands of copies.
Our contemporary trade paperback (usually larger at 6″ x 9″) format—often the hardcover version in a soft cover—has risen in prominence in recent decades. The term “trade” refers to the mainstreaming of this format in bookstores; the more expensive hardcovers have been in decline this past decade; mass-market paperbacks are more commonly found in supermarkets, airports, drugstores.
The Publishing Process:
Here is the typical model of the process that produces a book for market. This typically culminates in two publishing seasons each year, spring and fall, though the process for any given book may take years to complete.
- Author writes a manuscript
- Author’s agent shops manuscript to appropriate publishers, for a percentage of future royalties
- Publisher acquires the book via a contract offering revenue split and usually an advance on royalties
- Developmental editing, multiple revisions, editor working with author
- Copyediting, or line-level editing; possibly multiple revisions.
- Publisher assigns the book an ISBN
- Interior Design development (what used to be called “typesetting”)
- Proofreading the text in ‘final’ form
- Cover design, revisions, often in consultation with sales reps
- Advance marketing (ABI)
- Sales conference, where editors meet sales reps and negotiate orders and estimates
- Foreign rights sales and other “subsidiary rights” trading, often happening at Book Fairs
- Production: – printing: paper, ink, film, plates, presses; binding: sewing, gluing; covers
- Packing: standard-sized cartons to make shipping more efficient
- Sales reps visit retail buyers and generate orders
- Publicity (launch, ads, reviews, placement, tie-ins, word-of-mouth)
- Distribution and/or wholesaling: warehousing, shipping
- Retail order fulfillment
- Managing demand and availability (e.g., Christmas sales spikes)
- Reprinting, “backlist” life
- Returns from bookstores: unsold stock goes back for a refund
- Royalty payments to author, if the original advance is “earned out“
A typical trade publisher will release between 6 and 60 books per season (i.e., twice per year). The majority of these will fail to “earn out” the advance paid to the author, so the economics of publishing is focused on an entire season’s list—the bestsellers are expected to subsidize the slower sellers. Further, strong backlist titles (which are much more profitable, because there are few ongoing costs) subsidize the (risky) frontlist.
As with all industrial manufacturing, there is an economic incentive to print more copies at once, because the unit cost will be lower. The publisher then must balance the risk of printing too many with the risk of printing at high cost. As a result, warehousing costs can be a killer for slow-selling titles. What makes it much worse is the book industry’s long-term practice of returns: allowing the retailer to ship back unsold copies for a full refund.
Until the recent advent of timely sales data, publishers would often not know how well a title has been selling until the returns start arriving some months later. In the past 5 years (in Canada), publishers now have access to weekly sales data, so there is a better chance at managing inventory.
In Canada, because the size of our market is smaller (roughly 1/10th) that of the United States, and yet US-originated book still are available for sale in Canada, the federal government has variety of protectionist regulations in place to support the domestic industry:
- There are strict copyright laws governing who can import foreign books (typically an exclusive Canadian agent)
- There are strict regulations governing foreign ownership of publishers and importing agents.
- The Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) offers subsidies (grants) on a per-title basis for high-risk by culturally valuable genres: fiction, poetry, drama, literary nonfiction.
- The Department of Canadian Heritage (DCH) offers an operating subsidy to independent Canadian publishers based on a sophisticated economic formula.
Despite these measures, the majority of bestselling titles in Canada are published by the Canadian “branch plants” of large multinational companies (Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Shuster, etc.). The relationship between these multinationals and independents has shaped nearly 40 years of government policy.