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Book History and Print Culture at the Millennium (March 2014): The Book Business

by James K. Bracken

The Book Business

Scholarly discussions of the book’s history and future seldom talk about money.  Now, it is a given that selling books is not like selling soap.  What this comparison understates, however, is that selling books is big business.  Recent business forecasts show the U.S. book publishing industry with annual revenues of $26.9 billion, compared to the U.S. soap and cleaning compound manufacturing industry’s $54.7 billion.[1]  While some assert that book publishing is best seen as a cottage industry, the industry’s annual revenue is larger than the gross national product of many countries.

 Albert N. Greco’s The Book Publishing Industry, now in a second edition, is the standard introduction to the book publishing business or, as Greco emphasizes, a business in which “the bottom line is that there is a bottom line.”  A senior researcher for the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), the U.S. publishing industry’s trade association for policy, standards, and research, Greco calculates projections using data for consumer book publishing, like title output, sales, returns, distribution and marketing costs, and more.[2]  Greco does not see electronic books displacing print culture in the near future, nor even consumer book sales via the Internet amounting to more than a small portion of all sales.  Greco’s proposed solutions to book publishing’s challenges are sound business practices: operate like a business, pay reasonable author advances, target specific markets, and do not produce more than can be consumed.

If The Book Publishing Industry is a readable introduction, then Greco’s The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century, coauthored with Clara W. Rodriguez and Robert M. Wharton, is the subject’s advanced textbook.  This is also a difficult book.  Emphasis is on economic and social analysis of data for U.S. book publishing from 1945 to 2005.  Greco, Rodriguez, and Wharton comprehensively review the literature, data sources, and forecasting and analysis methodologies.

Bill Martin and Xuemei Tian’s Book, Bytes and Business gives an even more critical and far-reaching look at book publishing’s future.  For Martin and Tian, it is not so much if the book will survive, but rather how it will survive.  Martin and Tian comprehensively study what they view as a knowledge industry making a transition from producing a specific type of container (printed books) to producing the same information in different containers (digital formats) as well as previously unimagined new products and services.  Digitization for them is simply a tool, not unlike Gutenberg’s movable type, but in their opinion less revolutionary in that even digital books retain many of Gutenberg’s conventions.  Martin and Tian argue for new business models and give plenty of evidence showing where that change has already happened.  Critical in successful models is the degree of vertical integration of interests—that is, when individual authors connect with individual readers or groups with groups.  These alignments escalate to include whole populations of authors, publishers, manufacturers, distributors, and readers.

Another hard look at publishing’s economics is Eric De Bellaigue’s British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, perhaps the U.K. trade books’ closest alternative to Greco’s The Book Publishing Industry.  De Bellaigue identifies multinational conglomeration, verticality, and deregulation as late-twentieth-century commonalities that must be employed to publishing’s advantage.

About the future of university presses, however, most business writers are far less optimistic.  Contributed, previously published articles collected in The State of Scholarly Publishing, also edited by Greco, show the David versus Goliath dimensions of the challenges for university presses, with 2008 book net revenues of $451 million compared to commercial scholarly and professional publishers’ $5.2 billion.  Can open access, fair use, and other cooperative publishing models really close such an enormous gap?

John B. Thompson’s Books in the Digital Age also focuses on scholarly publishing, but in the United Kingdom, with emphasis on higher education, particularly textbook publishing.  Thompson identifies the growing concentration of resources, changing market structure and marketing channels, internationalizing of markets and publishers, and especially increasingly pervasive digitization as forces now compelling scholarly publishing to become more mass media businesslike (that is, focused on profitability).  At the same time, Thompson finds innovations like customization and on-demand publishing particularly appropriate to higher education markets.  What is happening in print book publishing, Thompson concludes, is a “hidden revolution.”  The communication circuit connecting authors with readers is now becoming increasingly competitive, with interrelated supply and value chains.  Digitization is the principal agent that is transforming the processes involved in producing traditional print media.  According to Thompson, scholarly publishing’s challenge is to continue to use technological innovation to reinvent itself to produce printed books profitably.

 Christine L. Borgman’s Scholarship in the Digital Age, on the other hand, sees no future at all for the printed scholarly book.  Systematically reviewing the policy, social, and behavioral issues, Borgman argues that the Internet simply trumps print media with too many irresistibly efficient and “wondrous capabilities” for scholars to do their work.

 Lacking much of the previous business discussions’ objectivity are books about publishing by former publishers, editors, and others who worked inside the industry.  Many insider accounts lament the decline of book publishing’s independence with the rising power of media interconnection, verticality, and globalization, while recognizing digital technology’s crucial role in publishing’s future.  Jason Epstein’s Book Business is both commentary and memoir.  Epstein recounts his work in publishing from the 1950s to 2000—a time period that saw the development of the Library of America, the publication of The New York Review of Books, and myriad heady moments of literary high culture when an editor could rub shoulders with famous authors.  Acknowledging that American book publishing’s golden age was the 1920s to the 1950s, Epstein describes an industry in decline, where growth potential was limited and book publishing best operated as a small, diverse, and niche-oriented “cottage industry.”  What has happened since then, Epstein says, is that a few big successes, like the Harry Potter books, convinced media conglomerates that trade book publishing was a mass-market business.  Employing new digital technologies, like print on demand, Epstein believes, will restore book publishing’s cottage industry model, and he foresees a future with more books, and more kinds of books, than was previously thought possible.  The Internet will streamline the communication circuit by connecting readers and writers directly and provide an unlimited variety of books.

A similar memoir and commentary is André Schiffrin’s The Business of Books.  A longtime editor, Schiffrin associates the book publishing industry’s decline with increased rationalization, meaning a corporate focus on profitability.  He does not see the Internet as saving book publishing, but instead suggests adopting a subvention model with public or private funds—something like a National Public Radio for publishing—that will ensure the publication of important books.

John Sutherland’s Reading the Decades echoes Epstein’s optimism.  Tracking successful books in Britain in parallel with the period of Epstein’s career, Sutherland also shows the rising power of media interconnection, verticality, and globalization.  In this BBC television series companion, Sutherland concludes that the convergences of popular tastes and media practically assure that the book does, indeed, have a future and one with a greater variety of books.

Very few other major insider accounts of the modern book trade try to project print’s future, although most, like Epstein’s, reinforce a message of change through media interconnection, verticality, globalization, and digital technologies.  Two collections are particularly noteworthy.  The British Book Trade, edited by Sue Bradley, includes recollections of major publishing figures such as Max Reinhardt, Tim Rix, André Deutsch, Christina Foyle, Ian Chapman, and John R. Murray, along with those of receptionists, warehousemen, sales representatives, and others who worked in publishing.  The interviews document the transition from the control of independent family businesses in a cottage industry to international publishing conglomerates from the 1920s to the present.  Also useful is Iain Stevenson’s Book Makers, a “synoptic” account of the twentieth-century British book business based on important biographies.  They include Judith Adamson’s Max Reinhardt; Asa Briggs’s A History of Longmans and Their Books, 1724-1990; Humphrey Carpenter’s The Seven Lives of John Murray; Jeremy Lewis’s Penguin Special; Tom Maschler’s Publisher; Barry Miles’s In the Sixties; Penny Mountain and Christopher Foyle’s Foyles: A Celebration; and Ian Norrie’s Mentors and Friends.  Other notable recent insider accounts are Richard Abel and Gordon Graham’s edited volume Immigrant Publishers; Alan Loney’s The Books to Come; Jon Wynne-Tyson’s Finding the Words; and the edited history John Wiley & Sons: 200 Years of Publishing.


[1] See, for example, Agata Kaczanowska’s IBISWorld Industry Report 51113 (November 2012), “Book Publishing in the US."

[2] The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) ( is a trade association of “publishers, retailers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, librarians and others involved in both print and digital publishing to forward its mission of creating a more informed, empowered and efficient book industry supply chain for both physical and digital products.”  Like many similar trade groups, the BISG publishes numerous expensive, industry-specific reports that are seldom purchased by academic libraries.  Studies by Greco and other industry experts usually usefully distill data from these kinds of industry reports.

Works Cited