1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Publishing

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PUBLISHING. In the technical sense, publishing is the business of producing and placing upon the market printed copies of the work of an author (see Book). Before the invention of printing the actual maker of a manuscript was to a great extent his own publisher and his own bookseller. Increase of facilities for the production of copies led to a steady though slow differentiation of functions. The author was the first factor to be isolated and confined to a well-marked province, yet we may find upon the title-page of some old books an intimation that they might be purchased either at the shop of the bookseller who published them or at the lodgings of the author.

The separation of publishing from book selling came later (see Bookselling). Booksellers were the first publishers of printed books, as they had previously been the agents for the production and exchange of authentic manuscript copies; and as they are quite competent to make contracts with paper-makers, printers and bookbinders, there is no particular reason why they should not be publishers still, except the tendency of every composite business to break up, as it expands, into specialized departments. That tendency may be seen at work in the publishing business itself. When publishers had conquered their own province, and had confined booksellers to book selling, they held in their own hands the entire business of distribution to the trade. But a class of wholesale booksellers has grown up, and although important retail booksellers in London continue to deal directly with the publishers, the retail booksellers throughout the country draw their supplies quite largely from the wholesale agents.

The intellectual movement which was largely responsible for the French Revolution, and the general stir and upheaval which followed that portentous cataclysm, precipitated the separation of production from distribution in the book trade, by the mere expansion of the demand for books. That separation was practically complete at the beginning of the 19th century, although it would not be difficult to find survivals of the old order of things at a much later date. The old bookseller-publishers were very useful men in their time. They met pretty fairly the actual needs of the public; and as regards the author, they took the place of the private patron upon whom he was previously dependent. No doubt the author had much to endure at their hands, still, they did undoubtedly improve his status by introducing him to public patronage and placing him upon a sounder economic basis. If in the earlier days they were less than liberal in their terms, it may be remembered that their own business was not very extensive or very remunerative. They were not equipped either with brains or with capital to extend that business in answer to the growing demand for books. By the daily routine of their shops they were tied down to narrow views, and their timidity is characteristically shown by the fact that to publish a book of any importance required the co-operation of a number of booksellers who shared the expenses and the profits.

Enterprise could not be expected from a committee of that kind and of that composition; hence there was not merely an opportunity, but a clamorous demand for men of larger ideas and wider outlook to undertake the proper business of publishing, unhampered by the narrowing influences of retail trade.

Besides unconsciously improving the position of authors by enabling them to appeal to the public instead of to patrons, whom Johnson classed with other evils in the line “toil, envy, want, the patron and the gaol,” the bookseller-publishers gave them, or many of them, steady employment as literary assistants and advisers.

As the demand for books increased, these worthy tradesmen felt with growing acuteness their own want of literary ability and of education. They called in men of letters to supply their own deficiencies. No doubt they expected the lowest kind of hack work from their assistants, no doubt the pay was poor, no doubt they trampled upon the sensibilities of the man of letters, and no doubt he irritated them by his businesslike habits. Still, the association was useful to both parties; and indeed, one may lay down many books at the present day with a sigh of regret that the writers had never been compelled to go through an apprenticeship of the kind.

The emergence of the publishers as a separate class was accompanied by differentiation of the functions of their literary assistants. The routine drudgery which men of education and ability formerly had to undergo fell to a class now known as “proof readers,” who are on the watch for typographical errors, grammatical slips, ambiguities of expression, obvious lapses of memory and oversights of all kinds. Men of letters became “publishers' readers,” and their duty was to appraise the worth of the manuscripts submitted, and to advise their employers as to the value of the matter, the originality of the treatment, and the excellence of the style. Their advice was also sought upon literary projects that may have suggested themselves to the publishers, and novel suggestions emanating from themselves were welcomed. Men of letters in positions of that kind could obviously exercise very considerable influence over the proceedings of the publishing firms to which they were attached, and many an unknown writer has owed the acceptance of his work to the sympathetic insight of the publishers' reader.

The man of letters as publisher's reader is, however, a transitory phenomenon in the evolution of the publishing business. His primary function is to tell the publisher what is intrinsically good, but probably he has always to some extent discharged the secondary function of advising the publisher as to what it would pay to publish. The qualities which make a man a sound critic of intrinsic worth are quite different from those that make him a good judge of what the public will buy. When books were comparatively few, and when the reading public was comparatively small, select and disposed to give considerable attention to the few books it read, the critical faculty was of more importance than the business one. But when the output of books became large, and when, as the consequence of educational changes, the reading public became numerous, uncritical and hurried and superficial in its reading, the importance of the critical faculty in the publisher's reader dwindled, while the faculty of gauging the public mind and guessing what would sell became increasingly valuable. The publisher's literary adviser belongs to the period when the publishing business had expanded sufficiently to compel the publisher to look for skilled assistance in working more or less upon the older traditions. But when, as is now the case, expansion has gone so far as to swamp the older traditions, and to make publishing a purely commercial affair, the literary reader gives place to the man of business with aptitude for estimating how many copies of a given book can be sold. This is practically recognized by at least one London publisher, who in recent years paid no salary to his reader, but gave him a small commission upon every copy that was sold of any book the publication of which he had recommended. Nothing could more plainly indicate that literary faculty is not wanted, and that the reader's function is to judge, not literary value, but commercial utility.

The market is flooded with books badly written, badly constructed, as poor in matter as in style, hastily flung together, and outrageously padded to suit conventional relations between size and price. They are books which no man of literary taste or judgment could ever recommend for publication on their merits, but they are published, just as crackers are at Christmas, on a calculation that a certain number will find buyers. Even if the publisher sees no prospect of an adequate sale, he publishes the books all the same, upon terms which ensure to him a manufacturing profit and throw the risk of loss upon other shoulders.

There is no reproach, stated or implied, to the publisher. He is merely a man of his age carrying on his business upon terms which the age prescribes through a number of concurrent causes. Any reproach that may fall upon him he invites by sometimes giving himself the airs of one belonging to an earlier age, and claiming credit for acting upon principles that are obsolete.

An author, even if he be an immortal genius, is, from the economic point of view, a producer of raw material. A publisher, however eminent, is from the same point of view a middleman who works up the author's raw material into a saleable form and places it upon the market. The relationship between the two is one that occurs with great frequency in business, always giving rise to efforts by each party to adjust the division of profits for his own advantage. If there be anything peculiar to the publishing business it is that the party who in that business most successfully adjusts matters for his own advantage is liable to be charged by the other with some form of moral obliquity. The diatribes of authors against publishers are familiar to every one; and publishers on their side have some hard things to say about authors, though their sentiments are less piquantly and less publicly expressed. The publisher is usually a more or less capable man of business, while the author is generally—though there are very notable exceptions—quite ignorant of business and apparently incapable of learning the rudiments. It necessarily follows that the author, left to himself, accepts agreements and signs contracts which are much less favourable than they need be to his acquisition of a due share of the profits jointly made by himself and the publisher. What makes his position still worse is the circumstance that each author fights for his own hand, whereas the publishers, although in competition with one another, are also to some extent in combination.

In these circumstances it occurred to Sir Walter Besant and some others that a remedy for this inferiority in position might be found in a combination of authors for mutual help and protection. After a troublesome period of incubation the Society of Authors was established in London in 1883, with Lord Tennyson as its first president, and with a goodly list of 35 vice-presidents. It offered useful assistance to authors ignorant of business in the way of examining contracts, checking publishers' accounts, revising their sometimes too liberal estimates of costs of production, and giving advice as to the publishers to be applied to or avoided in any given case. It has no doubt been of great service in checking the abuses of the publishing trade and in compelling the less scrupulous among the publishers to conform more or less exactly to the practice of the more honourable. On general questions such as that of copyright it serves to focus the opinions of authors, though here it champions their interests against the public rather than against the publishers. But the society has never been an effective combination of authors; and indeed the obstacles, material and moral, to such a combination are so great as to render complete success extremely improbable. Nothing could better illustrate this difficulty than the fact that, concurrently with the Society of Authors, a totally different machinery for the furtherance of the interests of authors came into existence. The “literary agent” made his appearance about 1880. He is supposed to be an expert in all matters pertaining to publishing and to the book market. He takes the author's business affairs entirely into his hands; utilizes the competition among publishers to sell the author's work to the highest bidder; checks accounts, estimates and sales; keeps the author's accounts for him; and charges a commission upon the proceeds. Here we have the author fighting as of old for his own hand. The only difference is that he does his fighting by proxy, hiring a stronger man than himself to deal the blows on his account. There is no question whatever of solidarity with his fellow-authors, and the whole system is a direct negation of the principle upon which the Society of Authors was founded.

On the other hand, both publishers and booksellers have long had the disposition, and to some extent the ability, to co-operate, and the efforts of both sets of men have unfortunately been in the direction of maintaining, if not raising, the price of books to the public. Since the formation of the Publishers' Association in 1896 the publishing trade has been strongly organized on the trade-union pattern, and its operations have been assisted by the less powerful Booksellers' Association. Books, like many other articles, are sold by the makers at list prices, and the retailer's profit is furnished by discounts off these prices. Under such a system competition among retailers takes the form of the sacrifice by the more enterprising of a portion of their discount. They prefer a large sale at a low profit to a small sale at a high profit. It is always the desire of the less enterprising to put an end to this competition by artificial regulations compelling all to sell at the same price.

Many attempts have been made to destroy freedom of dealing in books. In July 1850 twelve hundred booksellers within 12 m. of the London General Post Office signed a stringent agreement not to sell below a certain price. This agreement was broken almost immediately. Another attempt was made in 1852; but at a meeting of distinguished men of letters resolutions were adopted declaring that the principles of the Booksellers' Association of that period were opposed to free trade, and were tyrannical and vexatious in their operations. The Times took an active part in defending and enforcing the conclusions which they sanctioned. The question was eventually referred to a commission, consisting of Lord Campbell, Dean Milman and George Grote, which decided that the regulations were unreasonable and inexpedient, and contrary to the freedom which ought to prevail in commercial transactions. An attempt was also made in 1869 to impose restrictions upon the retail bookseller; but that also failed, mainly by reason of the ineffective organization which the publishers then had at command.

Feeling their hands greatly strengthened by the establishment of their Association, the publishers were emboldened to make another effort to put an end to reductions in the selling price of books. After much discussion between authors, publishers and booksellers, a new scheme was launched on the 1st of January 1900. Books began to be issued at net prices, from which no bookseller was permitted to make any deduction whatever. This decree was enforced by the refusal of all the publishers included in the Association to supply books to any bookseller who should dare to infringe it in the case of a book published by any one of them. In other words, a bookseller offending against one publisher was boycotted by all. Thus, what is known as the “net system” depended absolutely upon the close trade union into which the publishers had organized themselves. The Booksellers' Association signed an agreement to charge the full published price for every net book, but that body had no real power to impose its will upon recalcitrant booksellers. Its assent to the terms of the publishers merely relieved them of the fear of active opposition on the part of the wholesale booksellers and the large retail booksellers, mainly located in London.

All books were not issued at net prices even in 1910, though the practice had extended enormously since it began in 1900. But the principle was applied all round. In the case of such books as six-shilling novels the discount price of four shillings and sixpence was treated as the net price, and the usual penalty was inflicted upon those who dared to sell at any lower price, at all events within twelve months of the date of publication.

Owing to the fact that the net system was gradually introduced, net books and discount books being issued side by side with discount books in the majority, the full effect of the innovation was not immediately apparent. But the establishment of The Times Book Club in 1905 brought the system to the test. That Club aimed at giving to the readers of The Times a much more prompt and copious supply of new books than could be obtained from the circulating libraries. The scheme was at first very favourably received by the publishers, who saw in it the promise of largely increased orders for their goods. They obtained these orders, but then something else happened which they had not foreseen. Of the books they issued the vast majority were of only ephemeral interest. For a few weeks, sometimes only for a few days, everybody wanted to glance at them, and then the public interest dwindled and died. As the copies ceased to be in demand for circulation the Book Club naturally tried to take advantage of the buying demand, which always exists, though it is always repressed by the very high prices charged by publishers in Great Britain. The Book Club sold its surplus copies at reduced prices, and was obliged to do so, since otherwise it would have been swamped with waste paper. But the authors and publishers now rose in arms. Forgetting that they had been paid the full trade price for every copy, they said that the Book Club was spoiling the market, and that a wholesale buyer had no right to sell at the best price he could get. Hence arose what came to be known as the Book War, between The Times and the associated publishers and booksellers, the publishers withdrawing their advertisements from The Times and doing their best to refuse books to the Book Club. The conflict made a considerable commotion, and the arguments on both sides were hotly contested. It did not, however, alter the fact that the public will not pay high prices for books having no permanent value.

The Booksellers' Association, dominated by the large booksellers in London and a few great towns, made common cause with the Publishers' Association. Their interests were not affected by the net system, and they saw in the Book Club an energetic competitor. The small booksellers up and down the country are injuriously affected, because it is more difficult than ever for them to stock books on which there is a very small margin of profit, and the sale of which they cannot any longer push by the offer of a discount. Formerly, if a book did not sell at the full price, they could sacrifice their profit and even part of what they paid for it, thus saving at least part of their invested capital. Now if a book does not sell at the net price they have to keep it so long that it is probably unsaleable at any price and forms a dead loss. Hence they cannot afford to stock books at all, and that channel of distribution is blocked.

The cast-iron retail price is economically wrong. A bookseller with a large turn-over in the midst of a dense population can afford to sell at a small profit. He finds his reward in increased sales. His action is good for the public, for the author, and for the publisher himself, were he enlightened enough to see it. But a small bookseller in a remote country town cannot afford to sell at an equally low profit, because he has not access to a public large enough to yield correspondingly increased sales. Yet both are arbitrarily compelled to sell only at a uniform price fixed by the publisher. What makes the matter worse is that there is no cast-iron wholesale price. The small bookseller has to pay more for his books than the large one who buys in dozens of copies. Carriage on his small parcels often eats up what profit is left to him. As he is not allowed to have books “on sale or return,” he has no chance whatever; and as a distributing agency the small bookseller has become negligible.

It is not a necessary consequence of the net system that new books should cost the public more than before. If it has become the practice to sell a ten-shilling book for seven shillings and sixpence, and if that practice be thought objectionable, the obvious remedy, supposing publishers to have no other end in view, is to publish the book at the price for which it is sold. But the net system has been used to enforce the sale of the book at the published price and nothing less, which obviously amounts to compelling the public to pay more than before for the book. Again, if the object were to benefit the retail bookseller by relieving the pressure of competition, it is plain that after abolishing discounts the publishers would charge the same wholesale prices as before to the booksellers. But, on the contrary, they have so adjusted their prices that the retailer gets no more profit upon a book sold net than he formerly obtained from a book of the same published price after allowing a discount. Thus the object and result of the net system is to increase the profits of the publishers at the expense of the public. This has been accomplished at a time when paper is cheaper than at any previous period, and when machinery has reduced the cost of composition, printing and binding to an almost equal extent. It is a remarkable illustration of the power of combination among quasi-monopolists to raise the price of their commodities even in the face of a falling market.

The Book War came to an end in 1908; but though the publishers and booksellers appeared in the result to have brought the Book Club within terms which were satisfactory to them, the whole situation had really been changed. The public for the first time had been educated. Public attention had been forcibly directed to the fact that there is no reason in the nature of things why the price of books should increase, but on the contrary, every reason why they should be cheaper than at any previous period. A certain mystery which had hung over the publishing trade was effectually dispelled. The man in the street learned that books priced to him at six shillings can be produced by the joint labours of the paper maker, the printer, and the bookbinder for about sixpence, and that in many cases the author gets little or nothing out of the difference. There followed a quickening of the public demand for literature at reasonable prices, and enterprising people were found to meet the demand. A vast quantity of good literature, much better than nine-tenths of what is written to-day, has been brought within reach of persons of the smallest incomes. Hundreds of standard works have appeared in convenient and readable editions at a shilling, at sevenpence and even sixpence per volume. These cheap editions have an enormous sale, not only because they are low in price, but because they have permanent value. For the cost of a novel which he will never look at twice, and which perhaps was hardly worth reading once, a man may obtain half a dozen books that have stood the test of time, and that will become the valued companions of his leisure. He gets them too in a form suited not only to his purse, but to the limited storage accommodation at the disposal of the mass of modern readers, who can neither buy nor house the stately editions that adorn the libraries of the wealthy. Thus, in respect of the large class of books read for recreation, we have reached the paradoxical position that cheapness and excellence go hand-in-hand; and that the disparaging adjective frequently linked with “cheap” is more properly associated with dear and pretentious.

Nor does the counter movement stop even here. There is a growing tendency to bring out books of current production in cheap editions, and also to publish the original edition at prices which must give a painful shock to the authors of the net system. Cheap magazines, and the feuilletons which newspapers are adopting from French practice, make considerable inroads upon the province of the six-shilling novel; and as regards more serious books the newspapers now give an amount of information about their contents which goes far to console the public for the prohibitive prices of the books themselves. These movements are developing and will continue to develop, seriously interfering with the plans of those who devised the net system. The combination publishers have never understood that, apart from the very small percentage of works which make real additions to the sum of knowledge or of genuine literary achievement, the reading of the books they turn out is a pastime, which has to compete in public favour with a great variety of other pastimes. They have chosen to make their form of recreation extremely expensive, with the double result that the public turn to others, and that even their own is increasingly supplied by cheaper agencies.

There are certain classes of books which must always be relatively expensive, because they appeal only to students of some particular branch of science or of art or of literature, whose number is not great. But these are books of enduring value. Their price is justified not only by their prolonged service, but by the erudition or the exceptional qualities which go to the writing of them, as well as by the frequently exceptional cost of producing them. But as regards the vast output of books which merely amuse an idle hour, the existence of a large body of readers is the only excuse for their appearance, and if they cannot be produced at a low price ensuring an extensive sale they ought not to be produced at all. Thus there is more than a mere money question involved in the contention about price. An artificial system of prices leads to the printing of a vast quantity of trash, which demoralizes the reading public and is a serious obstacle to the success of the better books. Such a system operates, in fact, as a protective duty infavour of mediocrity and even of something worse. It is no defence of such a system that it panders to the vanity of incompetent scribblers, and enables publishers to make money by soiling paper that had better have been kept clean.

A rational system of prices would automatically solve some of the difficulties of the book-world. If a book is selling by tens of thousands of copies, as every book printed for pastime ought to do, it would not matter at what price any large buyer chose to resell his purchases. They would only be a drop in the bucket, and all the contention about second-hand prices would disappear. Then there is the troublesome system of “remainders,” that is to say, the unsaleable copies of thousands of books published every year. The editions are small enough—probably not more than one thousand copies—yet, in spite of circulating libraries, a third or a half of that modest number remains in the warehouses of the publishers. Sometimes they are sold for about the cost of their fiimsy covers; sometimes they simply go to be reduced to their original pulp at the paper mills. If a book has any sale justifying its production, there will be no question of remainders, supposing its supply to have been regulated by the most ordinary prudence. The sale of such a book never stops dead, and any small surplus of copies can always be got rid of at a small reduction in price.

Towards the end of the 19th century came a large influx into England of American literature, especially fiction. Not only was there a growing appreciation of many American writers, but the attractive “get-up” of American books made its influence felt upon the British market. Some of the American methods of distribution were also introduced into Great Britain, but at first with only partial success. The most successful effort was the sale of important expensive works through the medium of newspapers. Canvassing, which was a common method of distributing books in the United States, met with little support in the United Kingdom, although about the middle of the 19th century a large trade was done through England and Scotland by canvassers, who sold in numbers and parts such works as Family Bibles, Daily Devotions, Lives of Christ and Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

The methods of publishing in America are similar to those adopted in Great Britain, but the discount to the booksellers is generally given pro rata according to the number purchased. It is, however, in respect of the means of distribution that the systems of the two countries differ most. In America the general stores to a large extent take the place of the English bookseller, and by their energy and extensive advertising a wider public is served. In the distribution of fiction the American plan of “booming” a book by copious advertising, although expensive, is often the means of inducing a large sale, and of bringing an author's name before the public. In 1901 the net system, as adopted in Great Britain, was partially introduced into America.

The continental methods of publishing and distributing, especially in Germany, differ, in many respects very materially, from those of Great Britain. In even the smallest German towns there is a bookseller who receives on sale, immediately upon publication, a supply of such new books as he or the publisher may think suitable to his class of book-buyers. The bookseller submits these books to his customers, and by this method most books issued are at once placed at the disposal of any buyer interested in the particular subject. The large sums spent in other countries upon advertisements are thus saved. At the book fairs held in Leipzig at Easter and Michaelmas the accounts for books sent on sale are made up and paid. In France all books have to be licensed before publication, but the methods of publication differ little from those of other continental countries, in all of which book prices are much lower than in England.