Book review: The Publishing Business

Until the last couple of decades, book publishing was a trade in which you learned on the job, under the guidance of mentors within the industry. In Canada, formal training in publishing didn’t really begin until the Banff Publishing Workshop in 1981, but today publishing programs are offered at a number of institutions. When I pursued my Master of Publishing degree at SFU, our class learned from material that our instructors produced themselves or existing trade books about various facets of publishing. What we didn’t have at the time was a textbook specifically for students looking to begin a career in book publishing. Today’s students are more fortunate, as they can now read The Publishing Business: From p-books to e-books by Kelvin Smith (published by Ava Academia).

The Publishing Business is the first book I’ve seen that takes a pedagogical approach to book publishing. It’s comprehensive, giving students a generalist’s overview to the industry and the publishing process, from acquisition and editing to design and production to sales and marketing. Far from considering each of these areas in isolation, the book emphasizes their interdependence, which is one of its many strengths. Another is that it gives attention not only to trade publishing but also to educational and scholarly publishing. Each chapter features discussion questions and illuminating sidebars and ends with a case study relevant to the chapter topic, drawing stark connections between the theory explained in the text and its practice at real organizations within the book chain. Throughout the text the foundational concepts of high standards, attention to detail, and respect for fellow professionals recur.

This book is a timely addition to literature about publishing. Taking into account the enormous changes that the industry has seen in the past decade, the book looks closely at not only printed books but also ebooks, digital workflows, and metadata in marketing. The introduction attempts to prepare readers for an exciting but also potentially tumultuous ride:

The effects of the digital revolution are creating major advances in ways that affect everyone in publishing, whether they are writers, agents, editors, designers, marketers, booksellers, journalists, librarians or researchers. Therefore, you need to be prepared for change. You need flexibility and imagination, willingness and adaptability if you are to prosper in the publishing future. You also need to understand the context in which publishing has developed and from which it must move forward into a future that will continue to be subject to technological, economic, social and political developments. (p. 6)

This context the introduction mentions is provided by a brief, enlightening history of publishing—from the development of movable type to the effects of copyright and the history of censorship and freedom of speech. The book follows the evolution of publishing to its present state, with the domination of major global players, the growing prominence of the Kindle and other e-readers, and recent developments in print-on-demand technologies.

Because The Publishing Business attempts broad coverage of book publishing, it doesn’t tackle any one topic in depth; however, it is far from superficial, addressing such issues as authors’ moral rights, the evolving landscape of territorial rights for ebooks, pricing pressures, the changing role of literary agents, children’s ebooks and ebook comics, the rise of self-publishing (and developments like Kirkus Indie), the renaissance of short forms of writing in ebooks, and the effect of digital rights management on a publisher’s bottom line. One appealing aspect of the book is that it discusses publishing practices in both the U.K. and the U.S., touching on other countries as well. The international flavour of the text will help students understand how to relate to foreign publishers, especially when discussing rights sales. It also highlights how remarkably similar publishing is the world over, thus reinforcing that the industry has, in a lot of respects, really nailed down a series of best practices, particularly for print books.

Some of these best practices are offered up in very tangible, practical ways, with sample profit-and-loss calculations and a sample author contract. Smith writes,

Editors don’t need to be legal experts, but they do need to understand the importance of having a clear, well-constructed contract that covers the agreement that they are making with an author. And they need to be able to explain this clearly to the author, so that the editor–author relationship develops in an atmosphere of trust. (p. 102)

And for editors who fear that self-publishing and the prevalence and acceptance of netspeak have rendered them irrelevant, Smith reassuringly says,

Readers may excuse some spelling and grammar mistakes on e-mails and tweets, but they don’t expect them in a book or an e-book. Copy-editing and proofreading remain a fundamental part of publishing in the digital age. (p. 134)

The book devotes a chapter to the editorial process, another to design and production, and a third to sales, marketing, and distribution. The importance of marketing is premised on the notion that “even the most beautifully written, designed and produced publication has not fulfilled its role if it does not reach its intended audience.” (p. 166) Among a publisher’s many sales and marketing challenges are retailers’ demand for deep discounts and growing rates of returns. Regarding ebook pricing, Smith writes,

Pricing of e-books… has been a major issue from the beginning. It soon became clear that readers of e-books were not willing to spend as much on an e-book as they were on a p-book… Having already bought an e-book reading device, consumers wanted cheaper books, recognizing that publishers were saving on printing, warehousing and fulfilment costs. What they didn’t recognize, and what publishers were slow to articulate, is that publishers are not just printers and distributors; they fulfil many other functions that continue to cost money in the digital age: most notably the development of authors and their projects, packaging and brand, marketing and promotion, and long-term customer relationships. (p. 159)

Ultimately, the book concludes, a career in publishing is driven by more than making money from making books:

Publishers are a vital part of society. They are often among the first to speak out for human rights and social justice, to insist that information is not suppressed and that a wide variety of opinion is heard. This responsibility is one that remains important in a  world affected by political and social upheaval, climate change and ecological crisis. It is vital that publishers continue and enhance this role, while balancing the tension that sometimes exists between protecting human rights and preserving the right to freedom of expression.” (p. 189)

The Publishing Business is an excellent reference and will offer students a strong introduction to the opportunities and challenges within the current state of the industry. I certainly wish I could have read it before I started my MPub degree, if for no other reason than to get up to speed on the terminology. Because digital publishing is really just finding its legs and is changing quickly, however, this book may need to be revised within a year to remain relevant. Further, because it focuses largely on practices within the U.K. and U.S., publishing students in other English-speaking territories, including Canada and Australia and New Zealand, should supplement this text with material specific to their own countries, to better understand how such additional factors as colonial influences and American cultural hegemony may have shaped those smaller publishing industries.

My only real quibble with The Publishing Business has to do with the physical book itself. Although it’s printed in full colour on what feels like a sturdy stock, after only two days in my tote bag the spine has begun delaminating, and there is evidence of ink transfer and scuffing in the book’s interior. I’ve also had a hard time not leaving smudgy fingerprints all over the pages printed in reverse type. I can’t help wondering how well this book would hold up after a semester’s use in a student’s backpack.

That minor complaint is, of course, not enough to stop me from recommending this book. The Publishing Business is the first in Ava Academia’s Creative Careers series, and given its practical, comprehensive approach and clear, informative content, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for the series’ future titles.

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