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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Book Publishing Industry 35 Years Ago – Familiar Or Strange?



I recently came across a 1982 edition of Books:  The Culture and Commerce of Publishing by Lewis A. Coger, Charles Kadushin, and Walter W. Powell.  It poses a key question:

“In an industry perilously poised between the world of culture and the demands of commerce, who decides what America reads?

The book crafted 35 years ago, was based on extensive field research in a variety of houses and on hundreds of interviews with editors, publishers, authors, agents, marketing and sales staffs, booksellers, and book reviewers. But it still has relevance today, despite the changes since its publication, including the launch of Amazon, the advent of ebooks, the decline of book chains, self-publishing’s rise, and the expansion of global markets.

The book’s jacket claims it is “required reading for everyone interested in the book industry.”  It presents the big picture of the book world and analyzes the effects of publishing mergers of the day.  Of course, many more mergers have come since then.  Even in 1982, it was concluded that the book industry was beginning too much of a business and not the practice of an art.  The flap copy states:  “Though a historical review suggests that publishers have always cared about the bottom line, the difference today is that editors no longer make all the key decisions.”

The book examines:

·         The commercialization of literature
·         A paperback revolution
·         How large companies exercise ownership
·         Profiles on the people who make books
·         Women in book publishing
·         Author-editor relations
·         The making of book-blockbusters
·         The risk of literary agents
·         Chains of distribution
·         What book reviewers do

Back in the early 1980’s some 40,000 new books were produced in America through traditional publishers. Back then a handful of book publishers wielded immense power as the gatekeepers and guardians of truth.  This book set out to identify and analyze the people and forces involved in the greenlighting, production, and sales of books.

The authors note that starting in the 1960’s, publishing moved from being a cottage industry to one where small presses got swallowed by large corporations, some of which are traded on the stock market.  It poses a powerful question:  “What impact does market concentration – that is, an industry in which a handful of firms dominate its products and sales – have on culture?”

Bigger companies tend to take fewer risks.  They also can exert power over their suppliers, in this case, authors.  “Clearly, the authors fear, “concentration could have a deleterious effect on the quality and the diversity of published books.”

They say book publishing was changing at the time, due to societal trends, including a growth in real literacy as a result of an expanded education system and a big increase in the number of college graduates.

The authors note book publishing is a comparatively small industry.  With sales of around $7 billion in 1980, the entire industry would have ranked 46th on the Fortune 500 list if it were a single company.  It was also a concentrated industry.  In 1975, 45% of all publishing houses in the U.S. resided in the New York metropolitan area, publishing over 60% of the books released that year.

The time of this book is interesting.  Back in 1982 there were 450,000 books in print.  Traditional publishers are close to putting that many out in a single year.  Amazon sells over 11 million titles.  Back then, B. Dalton with 526 stores in 1980 and Walden Books had 704 stores and together they had revenues of more than half a billion dollars.  Where are they now?

Rather than deride the publishers as gatekeepers that conspire to keep out certain ideas or books, the authors suggested the floodgates were open and too many books have saturated the market.  They suggested a reduction in the titles published would help the newly worthwhile ones to sell.

“Publishing houses,” write the authors, “are indispensable intermediary points in the diffusion of ideas.”  They lamented the disconnect between what reviewers choose to review and of what consumers choose to buy.  They note:  “Many trade books, even highly successful best-sellers, may nowadays not be reviewed by the major review media.”  They also concluded this:

“The review media continue for the most part, to refuse to review original paperback books.  Thus, not only does a great deal of trash never get reviewed, at all, but also hardcover publishing is sustained, since a book with any serious pretensions must first appear in a hardcover edition if it is to get review attention.”

The book makes some excellent observations for publishing back then – as well as historically.  It even printed out that book mergers have been present way back when.  From 1885 to 1890, a number of publishers merged.  In fact, one firm, the American Book Company became so big that it controlled 93% of the country’s entire textbook industry.

I leave you with a few choice excerpts from this well-written and well-intentioned look at book publishing:

1.      “The myth is widespread that book publishing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a gentlemanly trade in which an editor catered to an author’s every whim, whereas commercialism and hucksterism have taken over in our day."

2.      “However, book publishing in the past as in the present has operated under the pressures of the marketplace, the countinghouse, and the literary and intellectual currents of the day.  The quest for profit and the demands of excellence have all too often refused to go hand in hand.  One should not be surprised that these same tensions, albeit in somewhat different form, are still here today."

3.      “The tension between commerce and culture, one of the themes of this study, has been shown to be a constant in American publishing, at least since the beginning of the last century.  Thus criticism of over commercialization has been common at almost every phase of the book industry’s history."

4.      "Historically, book publishing has been a competitive industry primarily because of the low capital entry costs.  These same low entry costs have made publishing susceptible to mergers because of the many undercapitalized small firms.  

      "Additionally, the easy availability of a host of intermediary and ancillary services that can be contracted for as needed makes it easier to establish new publishing houses compared with industries where economies of scale are more important.  Thus, low capital entry costs and free-lance services, along with the availability of books of all types worthy of publication, have historically mitigated trends toward oligopoly.

5.      "Until the rise of the mass market for books in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, book publishing was a simple cottage industry.  An author would approach a bookseller-printer-these two roles were not yet differentiated – and contract for the printing and selling of his book.  Frequently the costs were borne, wholly or in part, by a patron of the author, who thus ensured that the book would reach its intended audience among the cultural and social elite of the day.

"Conditions changed drastically in the latter apart of the eighteenth century and after.  Rising literacy widened the reading public and hence enlarged the market for books.  With the social ascent of the middle class came the emergence of a new stratum of people with enough leisure and education to develop a taste for reading books.  Up until the eighteenth century the middle classes, if they read at all, read mainly religious tracts and political broadsheets.  Only in the eighteenth century did they broaden their concerns and evince wider interest in other types of literature.  Furthermore, while in preceding centuries the audience for books was almost exclusively male, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries women became major consumers of books.  This change must, in turn, be accounted for by a marked change in the role of middle-class women who, at that time, gained leisure as they were relieved of the habitual drudgery of household routines.

6.     " With all these horrors stories, one may wonder whether publishing houses are so rife with incompetence that their future is doomed.  If authors must in any case promote their books themselves, perhaps they should bypass publishers altogether and publish their own books?  If the past is any guide to the future, self-publication is likely to continue to be rare.  The problems that writers have with publishers date back at least to the eighteenth century, and are built into the very nature of writing and book publishing, and will therefore continue.  Writing is a solitary act, and authors are not necessarily entrepreneurs or outgoing salespersons able to market their own work.  As solitary workers, authors also may not possess the kind of organizational wisdom to enable them to understand and work with the modern publishing house has become.  On their side, publishers are in the business of organizing and producing the works of many idiosyncratic, even recalcitrant individuals.  It is inevitable that the mesh between author and publisher will be less than perfect, and that many authors will get lost in the shuffle.  The ultimate inequality between authors and publishers is that the latter face all these problems as part of their daily routine and are therefore fully aware of them; publisher-author relations are, however, but a small part of an author’s life.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs 

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