Forms of Publishing

Communicating Knowledge: Publishing in the 21st Century. Editor: John Feather. Munich: K. G. Saur, 2003.


The publishing industry is a significant constituent of the global economy. It is part of the ever increasing knowledge-based element in economic activity. It handles intellectual property whose value runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. It also, however, has physical products. Indeed, the real value of an intellectual property lies essentially in the fact that it can be transformed into a piece of merchandise, whether that is a medicine, a movie or a magazine. Intellectual property, and particularly copyright, lies at the heart of the stability and profitability of the publishing industry. The law protects the commercial interests of publishers and creators alike, and provides an international environment in which they can publish books with a degree of certainty that the markets for any particular title will be protected, while at the same time there is a highly competitive market between titles. A publishing house can only continue in business if it continues to acquire new titles, and invests in their publication. Copyright law protects that investment, and allows the publishing house to develop a ‘backlist’ of titles which sell beyond their first edition, and which become cheaper to produce and sell as their life is extended.

The output of the industry takes many forms. Books are, of course, one of these, but neither numerically nor commercially are they the most important. Newspapers and magazines far exceed books in the numbers of copies printed and sold. Moreover, even among books, there are many different kinds, aimed at different markets, and often produced and sold in very different ways. Although we can develop a paradigm of the publishing process, it is important to do so against a background of understanding of the diversity of the industry and the range of its products.

In this Chapter, we shall examine three aspects of the diversity of the products of the publishing industry:

  • The variety of published material;
  • The sources of published material;
  • Rhe formats of published material.

The Variety of Published Material

In considering the basic definition of ‘publishing’, we saw that it is commonly understood to mean the commercial publishing of printed matter, with books as the exemplary format. Taking that as our starting point, we shall examine what these books are, and how they resemble and differ from each other. We can adopt various forms of distinction. Such distinctions might include fiction and non-fiction, general and specialist, hardback and paperback, adult and juvenile, consumer and professional, and so on. We might differentiate by language, by country of origin, by size, or by whether or not the book is illustrated. All of these distinctions are real and meaningful, although they are in some ways rather different from each other. We shall begin by looking at the variety of books in terms of their subject matter and contents, which is, after all, the main concern of the reader.

The distinction between fiction and non-fiction is one which is recognized by publishers, librarians, and readers alike, even though there is some blurring of the lines at the outer edges. Fiction remains one of the largest single categories of published material. In the United Kingdom in 1999, some 9730 new works of fiction were published, out of a total of 110 115 titles. This figure relates only to adult fiction; fiction aimed specifically at children is among the 9043 children’s books published in the same year. Of course, this is not a homogeneous group of books. Some of these titles were written by well-established authors with a ready-made market. The size of such markets is itself enormously variable. For a handful of books it went into tens of thousands even in hardback, and hundreds of thousands in paperback. For others it might be no more than a few hundred. The distinction made in the trade is between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ fiction, but it is important to understand what this really means. It is only in part a statement of print runs and sales figures; it is also a statement about the nature of the book itself. Literary fiction is understood to be more complex and to have a more serious purpose. It may even be a commercial success, but the author and the publisher are also seeking critical acclaim, through reviews (especially in certain newspapers) and through the enhancement of the author’s reputation. Popular fiction, sometimes called trade fiction, on the other hand, is aimed at a mass market, and seeks no such acclaim. It aspires to amuse and to entertain, and to make a profit.

The regularly published lists of bestselling books give us some insight into this. If we take the week immediately before Christmas 2000, which is the annual climax of consumer book buying in Britain, the 15 top-selling fiction authors in the United Kingdom were almost all well-established popular novelists with long histories of previous bestsellers behind them. The books included fantasy (Terry Pratchett, at the top of the list); thrillers (Patricia Cornwell, Dick Francis); espionage, war and similar stories (John Le Carré; Andy McNab; Tom Clancy); romance (Maeve Binchy; Margaret Atwood) and historical fiction (Catherine Cookson). Yet literary fiction in Britain has a recent history of commercial success, all the more welcome to the trade for being unexpected.

Fiction, whether for adults or children, is only one part of the book publishing industry. A much greater number of non-fiction titles is published every year; in 1999, there were some 99 000 in the United Kingdom. These can be further divided by their subject matter. How this is done depends on the purpose and origin of the classification system. Librarians have developed schemes which break down into small and very precise categories. Publishers, however, use broader and less specific divisions than the formal classification schemes. Inevitably, these reflect the commercial potential of books, and are themselves reflected in the organization of bookshops. In analysing non-fiction publishing, it is also helpful to try to develop an equivalent to the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ which we used when considering fiction. There are some established categorizations which help us in this, although they are not precise definitions.

Academic books are generally understood to mean those intended for use in colleges and universities by both students and teachers. Within this, however, there are subcategories. The longest print runs and the highest profits are for textbooks, that is books which are used by students as the basis of their learning in a particular subject. In some cases they are required reading, and indeed students may be expected to buy them. In any case, they are in great demand, and are bought in quantity by institutional libraries. In many subjects, especially in science and social science, they will need to be regularly updated to keep up with developments in the subject or with external change. Textbook publishing is inevitably closely linked with the education system. Changes in curricula, or changes in styles of learning and teaching, create the need for new books, and can decimate the market for an established favourite. In Britain, the radical changes in education in the last 15 years have led to the publishing of completely new school books, closely linked to the prescriptive National Curriculum. In higher education, change has been more recent and less universal, but even here there have been significant developments. One of these is the growing trend for academics to create their own courseware, using materials licensed from their respective copyright owners. Periods of growth in post-compulsory education have traditionally been a happy stamping ground for textbook publishers. When tertiary education mushroomed in the United States after World War II, college textbook publishing became a de facto mass market activity. By the end of the twentieth century, this vast market for college textbooks was effectively in the hands of eight companies. In Britain, the 1990s saw a similar boom in the textbook market.

Textbooks stand at the student end of the academic range; at the other, research monographs are the opposite in almost every respect. Such books contain the results of the author’s original research; they are, essentially, written by academics for each other, and are unlikely to be read by anyone else. Print runs are small, and prices are correspondingly high. The market for such books is to be found almost entirely in academic and specialist libraries, although a few copies may be bought by individual academics.

Between the textbooks on the one hand and the specialized monograph on the other, there is a complete spectrum of academic books. Indeed, in some subjects, such as law and medicine, students typically work with the books which they will continue to use throughout their careers. A category which is widely used in the book trade in both Britain and the United States to describe some of these books is that of Science Technology and Medicine, or STM. Although it seems self-explanatory, it is commonly understood to mean the books used by the professionals and trainee professionals in these fields as opposed to introductory student textbooks or academic research monographs. Such books are regularly updated and carry great authority. Some of the standard works are even known by the names of their long dead original authors, few if any of whose words survive into the current edition. One of the most spectacular examples is the book still known as Gray’s Anatomy, which has been familiar to medical students and practitioners for more than a century. STM books tend to be the products of specialist publishers with close links to the professions which the books serve, as well as to the universities in which new entrants are taught. Journals are an important part of STM publishing, since it is through scholarly journals that scientists typically publish their research results. As we shall see, scientific journals are in the fore-front of electronic developments, which in turn means that the future direction of STM publishing is surrounded by uncertainty.

More broadly, STM is a part of the growing category of professional books, a term which is increasingly used in the trade, and especially in bookshops. This includes not only the traditional STM subjects, but also such subjects as law, computing and business studies. The first of these is older than the publishing industry; the second and third are products of the late twentieth century. But the principle is the same; the books are comprehensive, authoritative and, above all, current. They are used by practitioners, teachers and students. They are of little or no interest to the general reader, and will only be found in those bookshops which cater to a specialist audience. Professional publishing is a generally successful sector, and despite the growth of electronic formats, it continues to flourish.

Set against all of these we have what are usually called trade books or general trade non-fiction, known in the United States as consumer books. The distinctions are not entirely clear cut. In some subjects, trade books are used for educational purposes, and books written for educational purposes have a wider market. In Britain, this is most obviously true in history and biography, where books by academic historians reach out to a wider audience as well as to the historical profession. Trade books are very susceptible to fashion, and indeed can be manufactured to meet or even to create popular demand. Instant book making became a common characteristic of British and American publishing in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Much of it is about external events or to celebrities both real and fictional. Some of it is connected to television series or to trends which have been created by television. It should not be assumed, however, that all television ‘tie-ins’, as they are known in the trade, are trivial or temporary. There is a long tradition in both Britain and the United States of successful books derived from documentary series, and indeed from overtly educational programmes. In Britain, tie-ins first became important in the late 1960s, and their successors continue to be found in the bestseller lists in the twenty-first century. Even radio serializations or adaptations of books, both classic and contemporary, can still have an impact on sales. In addition to these media related tie-ins, a great deal of general trade publishing is built around the popularity of other activities such as sport or popular music, with ghosted autobiographies of stars in both fields often reaching bestseller lists.

Both academic and trade books cover a wide range of subject matter. The distinction between them is fundamentally that of their intended readership and hence their market. In practice, this leads to different mechanisms of authorship, promotion and marketing, and even of physical format. These distinctions are reflected in bookshops. Branches of chain bookstores carry a stock which essentially consists of general trade books, both fiction and non-fiction. STM and professional books are found in some general bookshops in larger towns and cities where there is a market for them. Textbooks and academic books, however, are typically sold in shops which specialize in serving the academic market, usually to be found on or very near a college or university campus. One way of identifying general trade non-fiction is to look at what is displayed prominently in a general bookshop, or, a little more systematically, to consider the bestseller lists which are published regularly in both the trade press and the newspapers.

There is, however, some stock which is common to almost all bookshops. This is particularly true of the very important category of reference books. This is, of course, a blanket term. It traditionally includes dictionaries, encyclopaedias and atlases, as well as some annuals. There are indeed few bookshops which do not carry a few of each of these. While reference books are among the most common currency of the retail book trade, reference book publishing is highly specialized. An authoritative reference book may be many years in the making and involve a team of scores of specialists. The rewards can, however, be very large. Some of the bestselling books of all time are reference books, although they rarely appear in the published lists of bestsellers. English language dictionaries, especially those intended for non-native speakers, are particularly competitive and lucrative, to the benefit of several British publishing houses. There was a proliferation of reference books in the second half of the twentieth century, not merely in terms of the number of titles published, but in the range of subject matter which they covered. There are dictionaries and encyclopaedias of everything from anthropology to zoology. At a more specialized level, there are bibliographies, abstracts and citation indexes. At the opposite end of the spectrum there are annual directories of sports, guides to popular movies and books which list the best hotels and restaurants. Although some of this is primarily for the library market, much is aimed at the student or the general public, and indeed some of the popular annuals regularly feature in the bestseller lists.

Reference book publishing has been in the forefront of change in the industry in the last decade. As we shall see, it was in the reference field that the electronic alternatives to print first became established in book publishing. It is now widely accepted that in the long term major works of reference will be electronic, and that print-on-paper will not be a viable economic alternative. Almost all reference books need revisions or additions eventually; where these are both substantial and regular, electronic publication is rapidly becoming the norm. A particularly forceful example is that of Walford’s Guide to Reference Materials, one of the flagship publications of the [UK] Library Association. As its title suggests, it is itself a guide to the field of reference books. In future, it will be published electronically, and can thus be kept more current than was ever possible in the past. A more generally familiar example is perhaps that of Grove’s Dictionary of Music, which began publication in 1877; a much heralded revised edition was published in 1980 but libraries can now access the latest version online, which seems likely to be the way of the future.

Children’s books are a distinctive part of the trade. Many of them are produced by publishers who specialize in them, or by imprints in conglomerates which are dedicated to them, such as Penguin’s Puffin Books. Books for children differ greatly among themselves, not least in the age-range at which they are aimed. This varies from simple books for those learning to read to complex fiction intended for teenagers. At the younger end, a good children’s book is well-illustrated, colourful, written in simple language and printed in large type. Beyond that, however, the same rules apply as apply to adult books: fiction must have an engaging story and be about interesting people; non-fiction must be accurate, well-presented and have some intellectual content. The trade attaches great importance to children’s books, since it is after all children who will be their future customers. After a long period when it was regarded as a rather dull area of the trade, children’s publishing has flourished since the 1980s. In that decade, it bucked the general trend of slow or declining sales, and in the 1990s it has shared to the full in the success of British retail bookselling. In the United States, as we have seen, it was among the few bright spots in terms of sales.

Of course, many of these books are not bought by children at all, but by adults buying them for their own or other people’s children, and by school and public libraries. School library purchasing suffered badly in the 1980s, although in Britain is has recovered since 1997, and in the United States parental purchasing seems to have been an effective counterbalance to the decline of library spending in the 1990s. As in all areas of publishing, there has been a growing emphasis on corporate issues, not least on the need to make substantial profits, and on tie-ins with other media. To some extent, however, at least in the United States, the success of publishing for children seems to be particularly beneficial to smaller and independent publishers. The top 15 per cent of American publishers showed a decline of some 8 per cent in children’s book sales in 1996 against an growth of 11 per cent in the sector as a whole. It seems possible that the larger houses have been less able to react quickly to rapidly changing tastes, and not least to the need to make a shift towards multimedia products which are particularly attractive in this market.

Encouraging children to make the transition from being given books to buying them is crucial for the trade. In the last 30 years or so, a distinctive market has developed for what the trade now calls young adult books, that is titles (especially fiction) designed to appeal to a teenage market. They deal with serious and relevant themes, among which drugs and sex are probably the most prominent, and are written and illustrated in a style which is consciously contemporary. In nonfiction, the move to project-based work and student-centred learning at a comparatively early age has also created a market for well-written and appropriate books which fall somewhere between the traditional textbook and the book aimed at the school library. Publishers have made mistakes in trying to develop the young adult genre, and there is continuing evidence of both a decline in reading among teenagers and an emphasis on quantity rather than quality in publishing for them. Even so, the young adult sector continues to attract publishers as a long-term investment in developing an audience for books.

Perhaps the most obvious and visible distinction between books is that between hardbacks and paperbacks. Although paper-covered books have a history of at least 200 years, the modern paperback is generally reckoned to date from the foundation of Penguin Books in 1936. The truly innovative aspect of Penguins was actually not their physical form, nor even their low price, but the fact that they were sold in many outlets other than bookshops. The immediate success of Penguins led to many imitations on both sides of the Atlantic. By the mid-1950s, the modern mass market paperback was well established, although it was still essentially used for reprints of books previously published in hardback. The typical sequence of events was that a book was published in hardback, then reprinted in paperback some six to 12 months later when the hardback had been reviewed and the edition more or less sold out. This has gradually changed. By the 1980s, many publishers saw hardback fiction as little more than a trial run for the paperback; hardbacks were more likely to be reviewed in the prestigious newspapers, and would therefore draw attention to the title. But it was assumed that hardback sales would be almost entirely to libraries, and that sales to the general public would be of the paperback a few months later. The interval between hardback and paperback gradually diminished.

Despite a revival in sales of hardback fiction in the UK in the 1990s, the paperback is now the normal medium for fiction publishing throughout the English-speaking world. Some literary fiction does not reach paperback, but for popular fiction the hardback has all but vanished except in libraries. Even libraries carry large stocks of paperback novels, partly because they are cheap (and can therefore be replaced at comparatively short intervals) and partly because they are seen as less formal and hence more attractive to readers. In the United States, the total sales of adult, juvenile and mass market paperbacks in 2000 were worth US$4213 million; adult and juvenile hardbacks stood at US$3888 million. Comparable data for the United Kingdom is not readily available, but in 1999 sales of the top 100 bestselling paperbacks had a total retail value of £1376 million.

Books are not the only products of the publishing industry. The most commercially important of the others are magazines and newspapers. Their common characteristic is that they are published at regular intervals, which may vary from daily to two or three times a year. The periodicity of magazines is at the longer end of this spectrum, with a typical interval being weekly or monthly, while newspapers are normally either daily or, at most, weekly. Systematic categorization of periodical publications (a phrase which usefully encompasses all of this output) is not easy, but an empirical approach allows us to offer a pragmatic analysis.

Consumer magazines are to be found in newsagents shops, on airport and railway station bookstalls, and in some bookshops. The variety of subjects and titles is huge, although the categories adopted by the larger chain newsagents and bookshops give some insight in the trade’s perception of this aspect of the business. Historically, magazines for women have been among the bestsellers; indeed some of them still are. Magazines are even more closely linked to fashion and to popular taste than are books. The traditional women’s magazines, and their contemporary equivalents aimed at a younger market, fade almost imperceptibly into ‘lifestyle’ magazines which deal with such matters as home improvement, gardening and cookery. Like some books in these fields, some magazine titles are associated with particular television programmes or personalities. Contemporary magazines aimed specifically at men have a more recent origin, which can be traced to the publication of GQ in 1988. They proliferated in the 1990s, and are now an important sector of the market. Magazines for both men and women are not homogenous categories; they vary greatly in style, content and target audience. In seeking their audience among one or other gender, however, they typify the magazine market’s search for niches and sub-niches. The evidence for this lies everywhere on the newsagents’ shelves.

Special interest magazines cover almost every conceivable human activity. Among the most prominent are those which relate to hobbies, some of which (most obviously computing) fade into professional and business activities. There are magazines for train spotters, stamp collectors, bird watchers and photographers. There are magazines for teenagers, for old people, for ethnic minorities, for adherents of particular religions and for sexual minorities. There are magazines which tread along the boundary of the legally acceptable in terms of language and (especially) images. There are also magazines of the utmost seriousness, such as the great American news magazines, Time and Newsweek, their European equivalents such as Der Speigel, and the different but equally influential and authoritative British weeklies such as The EconomistThe New Statesman and The Spectator. Literary magazines also abound; some are small and privately circulated, but such journals as The Literary Review or The Times Literary Supplement are found in most branches of the chain newsagents. In short, the magazine industry is at least as diverse as the book publishing industry, and is far larger in terms of the number of items sold and the number of people who buy and read them.

Amongst all of these magazines, however, the most widely purchased category is actually those which provide listings of television programmes. Sky TV GuideWhat’s on TVRadio Times and TV Times are among the handful of magazines which are read by more than 5 per cent of the British population. Sky TV Guide, with a 12 per cent readership, heads the list. The others which break the 5 per cent barrier include only two typically consumer titles: FHM (8 per cent) and Woman’s Own (6 per cent). We must, however, distinguish between copies circulated and copies sold; many of the most widely circulated magazines are either free of charge or sent automatically to members of particular organizations. This was true of nine of the top 10 most widely circulated British magazines in 2000; the list was headed by the AA Magazine, sent to all 4.4 million members of that organization. Seven of the others were free magazines from chain stores (five of them supermarkets); and two others were for subscribers to a service (Sky Television) or an organization (The National Trust). The only priced magazine was What’s on TV, a weekly which sold an average of 1.7 million copies. Only four other magazines actually sold more than one million copies. Around 500 000 was typical for the most popular women’s magazines. One or two lifestyle magazines were around the 400 000 mark, although 300 000 or less was more typical. Special interest magazines—even for the most popular interests—rarely exceeded 100 000. An exception was the best selling computer magazine (PC World, 128 000). The bestselling sports magazine was Horse and Hound, followed by Angling Times (67 000 and 60 000 respectively). All of these were substantially exceeded by The Economist (400 000), and New Scientist (136 000), and even Private Eye (175 000).

Weeklies and monthlies with circulations which range from many millions to a few thousands are the magazine publishing equivalent of general trade books, and they share the slightly fuzzy borderline between academic and general which we noted in such fields as history. The equivalent of STM and professional books are to be found in the academic journals of which there are tens of thousands of titles, almost all of them unknown to the general public and indeed to most academics outside their particular field. They are the lifeblood of the research community, commercially of great importance, and undergoing revolutionary change. No study of publishing can ignore them. Some academic journals are published by commercial publishers, as we shall see, but many are published by learned societies either directly or through university presses or other publishing houses. A very few have a wider circulation than the academic world, and have a place in the public sphere as well as in the scientific communication system. Perhaps the best known of these is the British periodical Nature, a weekly published by Macmillan, as it has been since its foundation in 1869; it is the traditional place for British scientists to put the first notice of their discoveries, and is regularly reported by the mainstream printed and broadcast media. The American equivalent, Scientific American, is even better known, and can sometimes be found on news-stands and in book shops.

The papers in academic journals are written by academics for each other. They are typically based on original research, or contain a significant and authoritative reinterpretation of existing knowledge. In due course, a small number of these papers will become key works in their respective fields. A few contain results which will be incorporated into the next generation of textbooks. Rather more will be widely read within the discipline—including perhaps by undergraduates—for a few years before they are superseded. The vast majority will be read only by a handful of fellow specialists. Academics set great store by all of this. Indeed, their career progression, particularly in the sciences, is almost wholly dependent on journal publication. Many measures have been developed which attempt to quantify the impact of such work, including indexes of the number of times a paper is cited in subsequent publications, analyses of how papers are selected for publication, and the circulation figures of the journals themselves. All of these are interesting, and all are fraught with problems.

As publications, the distinguishing characteristic of almost all commercially published academic journals is that they have tiny circulations and extremely high prices. In the sciences, medicine and law, subscriptions in excess of US$10 000 are not unknown. Price increases are running at an annual rate of about 10 per cent, and have done so for a decade or more. The trend to higher prices has been exacerbated by the proliferation of journals. As scientists have become ever more specialized, new journals have been created for new specialisms, sometimes catering to only a few hundred people around the world. When such journals are published by commercial publishers, prices are inevitably extremely high. To some extent, the prices of mainstream scientific journals have been held at more reasonable levels because many of them are published by learned societies. In effect, this subsidises the publication, since membership is a professional necessity (or even a formal requirement) for people in the field, and their subscriptions help to support the costs of the journal. Such journals are also, of course, available to non-members and—most importantly—to libraries, on payment of a subscription. Although it is organizations like the Royal Society of Chemistry or the Institute of Physics which are normally quoted in this context, there are similar bodies in the humanities of which the largest in the Modern Languages Association in the United States, whose journal is has long been a cornerstone of the academic publication system in literary and linguistic studies. Standing between the commercial publishers and the learned societies, and sharing some characteristics of both, are the university presses, although they have had their own problems in recent years and their journals are often almost as expensive as those which are purely commercial enterprises. Finally, there are a few examples of not-for-profit companies and co-operatives where the scientists have become their own publishers.

Scholars, scientists and librarians all share with publishers part of the blame for the uncontrolled growth of both the numbers and the cost of academic journals. The whole system of academic appointment and promotion, and in the United Kingdom the use of publications as a means of evaluating and subsequently funding university departments, has forced academics to publish more. This has included the development of the infamous practice of ‘salami slicing’ whereby a piece of research which deserves publication will be presented in two or three papers rather than one to increase the apparent output of the authors. At the same time, librarians have submitted to pressure from academics and researchers to subscribe to the journals, and to the indexes and abstracts which give access to them. A vicious circle has been created, from which there is no very obvious escape until the parties involved can work together more closely. As we shall see, the development of electronic journals may offer precisely this opportunity.

Newspapers are somewhat more easily categorized than either popular magazines or learned journals. They are almost invariably either daily or weekly. In Britain, ‘daily’ newspapers are actually published on Monday to Saturday inclusive; the Sunday papers are weeklies. In other countries, practice varies, some following the British pattern, and other following the American practice of seven-day-a-week newspapers. There are both national and local or regional newspapers; in Britain the distinction is clear, but this is less true in the United States. Apart from the comparatively recent USA Today, there are no national newspapers in the United States in the British sense, although some of the major city newspapers are available in many other major cities, and carry weight nationally and indeed internationally. In Britain, as in most European countries, local or regional newspapers are precisely that, being dominated by local news, and circulating almost entirely in their area of origin. This may be a large city, a small town, or a region or subregion. British local newspapers are typically published in the afternoon or evening if they are dailies; in many smaller places they are weeklies.

The national newspapers are an important element in the British and international publishing industry. The groups which now dominate the British national press are major players in the wider world of book and magazine publishing. Some of them also have extensive holdings in regional and local newspaper publishing as well. Traditionally, however, titles have been allowed a large degree of editorial independence, especially in determining what, if any, political allegiance they will adopt. There have indeed been examples of newspapers from the same group supporting different parties in British general elections, although powerful proprietors can and do exercise some influence. Local newspapers typically do not take a partisan political line, except perhaps on some local issues.

Newspapers can be categorized by content as well as by periodicity or market. In Britain in the last 30 years this has also come to be associated with their physical format. The broadsheets lie at the serious end of the spectrum; papers such as The TimesThe Daily Telegraph, or The Observer, print in six or seven columns on each of 20 or more pages, and usually in more than one section. They carry news, comment and features covering a wide range of subjects, and take both domestic and foreign politics seriously. Circulations vary from the one million or so of The Daily Telegraph, to less than a quarter of that for The Independent. To put these figures in context, only 54 per cent of adult (over 16) Britons regularly read a daily newspaper in 2000. The Sun was read by just over one-fifth of British adults (21 per cent; but 24 per cent of men and only 17 per cent of women). At the other end of the scale just 1 per cent read The Independent and The Financial Times. In the mid-market, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail had 13 per cent and 12 per cent readerships respectively.

The British national newspapers which are not broadsheets are sometimes characterized as tabloids. They have a page size which is approximately half of that of the broadsheets, make much more use of photographs and other graphic material, and have more emphasis on features and sport than on what broadsheet journalists would regard as ‘hard’ news. There are, however, real differences between the tabloids themselves. At least two of them are targeted at a conservative middle-class market, and there is considerable evidence for them sharing some of their readers with some of the broadsheets. These are The Daily Mail and The Daily Express; the nearest equivalent on the political left is The Daily Mirror. These papers are quite different from those which are increasingly referred to as the red tops, typified by The Sun on weekdays, and its Sunday stablemate The News of the World. They carry comparatively little hard news, and a great deal of gossip and scandal about celebrities from the media and from the world of sport. They rely heavily on photographs to fill their large numbers of pages, and are a major outlet for the photographers (paparazzi) who specialize in unofficial pictures of the rich and famous. Although they still regard themselves as influential, there is some evidence that what influence they had has declined. Certainly readership is in long-term decline. In 1981, 76 per cent of men and 68 per cent of women in Britain regularly read a daily newspaper; by 1998/99, this had fallen to 60 per cent and 51 per cent respectively.

In Table 3.1, the data for the circulation and readership of the national dailies have been brought together. They suggest a number of characteristics of the British newspaper industry. One of the most important is illustrated by the 21 per cent who read The Sun, but are clearly also readers of other papers. Multiple readership (and perhaps purchase) is a significant factor in the industry. For some papers, circulation figures are boosted by mass sales which do not necessarily lead to reading. These include sales to hotel chains, train operating companies and airlines which provide large numbers of complementary newspapers to their customers; The Daily Telegraph, and The Financial Times are probably particular beneficiaries of this practice.

The study of the publication, content and influence of newspapers is a major subject in its own right. In the context of publishing, especially in Britain, its significance lies in its integration into the industry as a whole. The conglomerates encompass newspapers as well as magazine and book publishing. Although they are usually run as separate businesses, all these aspects of publishing sustain each other within the group. They contribute to profits, and hence to the commercial stability of the company, especially if its share price is quoted on the Stock Exchange. They share some of the same retail outlets, and hence support the market penetration of the trade as a whole. They also share problems: competition from new media, the declining popularity of reading among younger people, and an ageing readership. They have to be taken into account in any study of the British publishing industry.

Table 3.1 UK Daily newspapers: circulation and readership 2000-2001
Title Average circulation (no. of copies) Readership (percentage of population)
(Sources: see notes 46, 62)
The Sun 3 498 974 21
Daily Mail 2 415 943 12
The Mirror 2 179 105 13
Daily Telegraph 1 018 088 5
Daily Express 974 158 5
The Times 718 536 4
Financial Times 486 366 1
Guardian 399 295 2
Independent 224 832 1
Star 96 999 3

The Sources of Published Material

Everything which is published has been written by someone. This is true of an official report, an anonymous paragraph of parochial news in a local newspaper, a scientific paper or a book of poems. In common understanding, however, we recognize some writers as ‘authors’, and put them in a rather different category; the interactions between authors and publishers is one of the key relationships in the industry, which we shall consider in more detail in Chapter Four. Other writers have a very different status from that of the single author writing a work of imaginative literature or a general trade book. Some do not deal directly with publishers, working through editors of journals or of monograph series. Some are actually employed by the publisher, as is the case with many journalists on newspapers and magazines, although some are freelances who submit their work to many different publications. Yet others are not writing in a personal capacity, but as employees of an organization or corporate body. Some items are written by committees or less formal groups of people, and cannot be attributed to an individual in any meaningful way. Indeed, it may be undesirable to make such an attribution. All of these models make a contribution to the output of published works. In this section, we shall try to analyse in greater detail the sources of publications, so that in Chapter Four we can study the process by which works are actually put into the public domain by publishers.

The most familiar model is, of course, the single author, although it is rarely the case that he or she does not have some input from others, even in the case of creative writers. Moreover, despite the familiarity of the single author model, it is by no means as predominant as might be thought. In Table 3.2, various modes of authorship are set against their typical products. The listing of products, however, is by no means exhaustive. To take some obvious examples from the first two lines, there are single-authored textbooks, and some general trade non-fiction with two authors. There are also some very complicated relationships which are disguised by this simplified overview. For example, the individual papers in a scientific journal are typically multi-authored; to that extent, therefore, they have some common characteristics with multi-authored items published in book form. Newspapers and consumer magazines, presented here as edited products of different kinds (as they are) also have some important common features in terms of authorship. For example, some writers are fulltime employees of the publication (like many newspaper reporters), while others are freelances who may submit work unsolicited, or (more often) be commissioned to write particular pieces on an occasional or regular basis. In other words, we are now focusing not on the form of the publication, but on the creation of the work itself.

The relationships implicit in Table 3.2 are complex. Between the author and the product stands the publisher. The role of the publisher, as we suggested in Chapter One, is to take the work of the former and to convert it into the latter. We can now see, however, that this is far from simple. We shall explore this further from the author’s perspective in Chapter Four. Here we shall consider the origins of publications in terms of the individuals and organizations which are responsible for them, and of their intended purpose.

Table 3.2 Authors and their products
Mode of authorship Typical product
Single author Fiction, Poetry, General trade non-fiction
Two or more named authors STM book, School or college textbook
Multiple named authors with a named editor Conference proceedings, Collection of essays, Consumer magazine
Multiple named authors with a named editor and named editorial advisors Scientific or scholarly journal
Multiple named and anonymous authors with an anonymous editor Newspaper
Anonymous text with introduction or endorsement by a named person Company report, Government publications
Anonymous text Official documents

Even the book written by a single author is, like almost everything in publishing, less simple than it may seem. Some books are written and then simply submitted to one or more publishers. Some publishers quite explicitly say that they do not consider such material. Others at least claim to look at it, although the reading is typically cursory and there is general agreement that only a tiny percentage of unsolicited material is seriously considered for publication. The acceptance, or even the serious reading, of unsolicited submissions declined rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century; by the early 1980s a significant percentage of American editors was reported as having accepted no such material in a particular year. Fiction—especially first novels—and poetry are probably the only categories of book which have even a moderate chance of reaching print by this route. Unsolicited material which reaches print is found more often in learned and scientific journals than on the shelves of bookshops. The career structure of the academic world, especially in the United States and Britain, is critically dependent on publication, and might even be argued to have encouraged unnecessary publication. Papers are typically written by those engaged in a research project and then submitted to an appropriate journal where they are considered by the editor and by independent referees.

More often than not, a book is commissioned; for non-fiction this is almost universal, and even for fiction is becoming more common. There is a fundamental difference between writing a book speculatively and writing one to commission; in the latter case, there are well-defined parameters of length, subject matter, level and timescale. In other words, it is an activity in which a professional editor expects a degree of professionalism from the author. The relationship between them is normally regulated by a formal contract. It is also increasingly the case that there is an intermediary between the authors and the publisher in the person of a literary agent who represents the author. Although agents have existed since the late nineteenth century, their role has been enhanced by recent changes in the publishing industry. The great multinational corporations which now dominate trade publishing in the English-speaking world can seem formidable indeed to the individual author, especially if he or she is a novice, and this can lead to unhealthy tensions arising in part from authors’ ignorance of how publishing works. Agents can help to redress the balance; a growing number of authors (and not only of fiction) make use of them in order to maximize the financial benefits they gain from their writing. Publishers have not always been enamoured of agents (William Heinemann refused to have them in his office), and there is still evidence of strained relationships as they take on more and more of the advisory role which once rested with the publisher’s editor.

It is through the commissioning process that complex multi-authored books can be brought into existence. The most simple case is little more than an extension of the practice of commissioning an individual author. Two or more authors are contracted to write a book for which they have equal responsibility. How that works is largely for them to determine, often to the point of designating one of their number to deal with the publisher. Commissioning an author to edit or compile a multi-authored book is far more complicated, and effectively delegates some of the commissioning process. A volume consisting of 10 or 12 chapters, each by a different specialist, has become a typical product of academic publishing in the last 20 years. The normal practice is that this is commissioned by the publisher from the volume editor, part of whose job is to find the authors of the individuals chapters and effectively to commission them on behalf of the publishing house. The editor is then the only person who deals with both the publisher and the authors; he or she has effectively taken on part of the role of the publisher’s editor. Some works are even more complex; encyclopaedias and other reference books, for example, are almost invariably multi-authored, sometimes anonymously and sometimes with signed contributions. In the academic world, this can lead to complications when individual contributors need to claim credit for their own contributions.

Although all printed matter has been written by someone, much of it is not attributed to an individual. Perhaps the most familiar example of this is in newspapers, where many stories are simply attributed to press agencies, to ‘our correspondent’ (although this is less common now than 20 or 30 years ago) or simply to no-one (which means that it was written by someone on the staff, usually a junior or trainee reporter). Other items are anonymous in the sense that an organization rather than a named individual or group of individuals accepts responsibility for what is written. This does not mean that no-one is named. The annual report of a company or a public body may well have a foreword over the name of the head of the organization. This is even true of some government policy documents which have a preface by (or at least signed by) the relevant minister. The bulk of the text, however, is a genuinely collaborative effort, drafted by many people in different parts of the organization, brought together by a small team or perhaps by a single individual, and approved by the Board or its equivalent before publication. In this way, it becomes the corporate responsibility of the organization, which then owns the copyright. It is quite possible that none of the ‘authors’ can identify more than a few phrases of which he or she was the originator. The work was, of course, done as an employee rather than as an individual; no payment is received beyond the usual salary, and no rights accrue to the ‘authors’.

There are publications in which no names appear at all. Perhaps the largest and most important category is that of official publications produced by governments at all levels, by international organizations, and by similar bodies. These are collectively referred to as ‘official publications’, because they represent the views of the organization, not of any one individual within it. Official publications, and publications by semi-official bodies, are not without significance in the commercial world of publishing and bookselling. Some of them sell very well indeed, and are available through bookshops; a familiar British example is The Highway Code, published by HMSO and a consistent bestseller. Although most official publications are of interest only to specialized libraries, some are sold through normal channels, and bring in revenue which helps to sustain the trade in general books.

The Formats of Published Material

Published works originate in many different contexts. To understand the publishing industry, and the process of communication which it facilitates, it is necessary to take an inclusive view. A large general bookshop may carry about 20 000 titles at any one time, most of them in a small number of copies. A major bookselling chain may have up to 50 000 in its shops and warehouses. These are large numbers, but they have to be set alongside the book production statistics which we considered in Chapter Two. Beyond the general trade books, both fiction and non-fiction, which we see on the shelves of the bookshops are tens of thousands of publications which will reach their markets and the audiences through entirely different channels. They come from different places, and travel along different routes.

There are, of course, a few common characteristics between all printed items. The most important lies in the very medium itself. The paper and print industries are large-scale industrial activities. Only a small percentage of this is accounted for by book printing, which is concentrated in a few specialized firms. Rather more can be ascribed to the printing of newspapers and magazines, but the bulk of the printing industry is actually concerned with promotional materials and packaging. Regardless of the sources of the material, however, and regardless of the channels through which it reaches the end-user, all published material does pass through a printing press, and most passes through some sort of binding machine. In that way, the hidden industry of official publications, report literature and the like helps to support the visible industry of commercial publishing.

In the Western world, print on paper has been the normal form of publishing for over 500 years, and for all practical purposes its only form for over 300. During that time, while there have been changes in the technologies of typesetting, printing and binding, the fundamental form of the book has not changed. A book printed in 1501 is recognizably the same object as a book printed in 2001, despite the differences of typography and design. The visual and physical conventions of the book have changed, but the fundamental mechanical and economic principles have not. Since about 1980, however, the printed book has been subjected to a serious challenge on its own ground for the first time. New media have, of course, been developed over many decades; the cinema, radio and television each in turn have become competitors to books in the leisure market and, to a lesser extent, in the educational market as well. None, however, challenged the core functions and characteristics of printed books on their own territory: continuous and complex narrative, both instantaneous and long-term accessibility, ease of use, comparatively low costs of production and purchase, and so on. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, it was precisely that challenge which emerged. First in the educational world, and then more generally, digital media in various formats were brought onto the market. From CD-ROM in the 1980s to open publication on the World Wide Web in the late 1990s, we can trace a revolution in the storage and communication of information which does indeed present a real threat at the very heart of the publishing industry. No survey of the forms of publishing would be complete without examining both print and the alternatives to print as they are used in the industry at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

We need not concern ourselves with the technologies themselves. Publishing is about products, not production. We do, however, need to examine the economics of the production processes, for these are central to the industry.

The economics of print production have been well understood within the publishing industry for centuries. Printed publication is a form of mass production; every title is produced in a number of identical copies. It therefore benefits from one of the fundamental principles of mass production: more equals cheaper. This equation depends on the fact that certain costs are fixed regardless of the number of identical products which flow off the production line. Each item generates some additional cost (for materials and storage), but the fixed costs can be spread across all the items which are produced.

The difference between fixed and non-fixed costs is one of the basic elements in the economics of publishing. The second is that new books do not generate revenue until almost all of these costs, in both categories, have been incurred. In this, book publishing differs significantly from most other mass production industries. A comparison with the archetypal example—the motor car—will illustrate the point. The car manufacturer’s equivalent of the publishers’ fixed costs in Figure 3.1 are such things as the mechanical and aesthetic design of the vehicle, the retooling of the production line, the launch of a new model and so on. All of these are incurred before a revenue stream is created. After the launch of the car, however, the production line continues to produce identical cars, sometimes for many years, and there is a similarly continuous stream of sales, generating revenue which supports the continued production of the model. The non-fixed costs (such as the raw materials for manufacturing the car, the salaries of the workers who make it, distribution costs, and so on) can thus be offset against simultaneous revenue from identical cars which had been produced at earlier points in the production run. In the case of publishing, however, this is not true.

A typical book is printed once only, and one of the skills of the publisher is in accurately estimating the number of copies that can be sold. The print run for most general trade books hardbacks is probably about 5000 copies; for some scholarly monographs, it may be as little as 500. For a few titles expected to sell exceptionally well, it can rise to more than 10 000. For paperbacks, the figures are of course much larger, with some mass market paperbacks being printed in batches of 100 000 or more. Whether the print run is 100, 1000, 10 000 or 100 000, the fixed costs will be incurred before a single copy is sold, and so will many of the non-fixed costs such as materials (paper and binding), the direct costs of production, much of the initial distribution costs (to the warehouse), and almost all of the direct costs of promotion and sales (such as advertising). The consequences are illustrated in Table 3.3.

The data in Table 3.3 is for illustrative purposes only, but serves to emphasize the inverse relationship between the cost per copy and the number of copies printed. On this basis, the minimum revenue which the publisher must generate to cover the fixed costs only of 1000 copies is more than 60 units of currency; if 10 000 copies are printed and can be sold, the figure falls to more than 6. In practice, of course, the calculation is both more complicated and less precise, for a number of other considerations must be factored in. Among the issues to be taken into account are such questions as whether the number of copies sold will increase if the price is kept lower, and therefore whether printing 2000 copies will result in, say, 1600 sales at more than 40 units of currency, which would yield a revenue of more than 64 000. The publisher will also consider ways of reducing the fixed costs. A specialized book will need only limited specialized advertising, and the marketing costs will thus be reduced, perhaps to not much more than the cost of listing the work in a catalogue and sending out a comparatively small number of complementary copies for review. Typesetting and proof-reading costs can be reduced by insisting that authors submit camera-ready copy on disks, and so on. Whatever is done, however, the fundamental equation remains: the more copies that are printed, the smaller the cost per copy.

Table 3.3 Fixed costs and copy costs
Activity Cost (units of currency) Copy cost—1000 copies (units of currency) Copy cost—10000 copies (units of currency)
Editorial 20 000 20 2
Design 2500 2.5 0.25
Typesetting 15 000 15 1.5
Proof-reading 2 500 2.5 0.25
Marketing 20 000 20 2
TOTAL 60 000 60 6

We must bear this principle in mind as we consider the formats in which printed matter appears. The most basic, and most familiar, variation is between hardback and paperback. The hardback is the most traditional form of the book, and is still regarded as the norm by most publishers, many booksellers and librarians and some readers. There is an assumption that all new books will be published in hardback before a paperback edition appears. Indeed, the conventional view in the book trade was that no book would be successful if it did not appear first in a hardback edition. This assumption was partly economic and partly a matter of prestige and prejudice. It is certainly true that it is possible to make a decent profit from sales of a print run of 2000 hardbacks. It is also true that hardbacks are—or were until recently—more likely to be the subject of serious reviews than paperbacks. Gradually, however, from the late 1970s onwards, hardbacks came to be seen by some publishers as a means of market testing a new title or author. The paperback rights became a significant element in the revenues of both the hardback publisher and the author. In the early 1980s, it was still axiomatic that original publication of fiction or general trade non-fiction in paperback was likely to fail. By the end of that decade, it was estimated that only between 60 and 70 per cent of all new titles were published in hardback, and the proportion of original publishing in paperback was increasing rapidly. At the same time, librarians were increasingly turning to paperbacks, partly for reasons of cost, but partly because it was felt that they were more attractive to clients. It has recently been argued that full-price hardback publication of fiction is realistic only for established authors. Although that may be contestable (not least by observation in bookshops), the argument illustrates the dramatic change in perceptions over a comparatively short period of time. Even the social and cultural prejudice in favour of the hardback has largely vanished. Paperbacks are regularly reviewed in the broadsheet newspapers (and not only in ghettoized ‘New paperbacks’ columns), and are often the most striking feature of both window displays and in-store promotions in high street bookshops.

It can be cogently argued that the paperback is now the dominant format of consumer book publishing in both Britain and the United States. Again, the lists of bestsellers provides valuable data. In a typical week, The Bookseller recorded just seven hardbacks in its top 100 titles. Of these, only three were novels. The domination of the fiction market by paperbacks is a long-established phenomenon. Indeed, it is sufficiently long established to have its own norms and conventions, not least for its physical format. So-called A format—the small familiar size which has barely changed since the 1930s—is used for ‘mass market’ paperbacks, which are expected to sell in excess of 10 000 copies from each print run. For more up-market books, the larger B format is used, because it is believed to be more prestigious. It is not only, however, in the fiction market that the paperback has come to dominate. The most successful general trade non-fiction is also expected to flourish in paperback, and tertiary level textbooks will probably only penetrate the student market in paperback form. The appeal of the paperback to the consumer is, of course, cost. Yet only a small part of the difference between hardback and paperback prices derives from the difference in materials used. Indeed for B format books, the paper is typically the same as that of the hardback, and the sheets may even be from the same print run. The real difference is the unit cost, because of the larger numbers printed and sold. In a typical week, the top-selling mass market paperback had sold 21 639 copies in three weeks, and the top ‘Original fiction’ had sold 7242 in the same period. This was significantly exceeded by the top nonfiction paperback, which sold 9531 in its first week. By contrast, with a single exception, no hardback fiction title had sold more than 2506 copies, and the tenth in the list had sold a mere 895 in eight weeks. The price differentials are both the cause and the consequence of these stark contrasts. While a typical hardback in these lists costs between £12.99 and £20.00, the most expensive non-fiction paperback was £11.99 and mass market fiction was typically priced at £6.99. In other words, paperbacks are about half the price of the hardback editions of comparable titles.

The predominance of the paperback in the consumer and student markets has had major consequences for the trade as a whole, not least for the booksellers, as we shall see in Chapter Five. It is seen as being user-friendly and giving value for money, and is the ideal format for books to compete with other consumer goods in a unstable and changing market. In the academic market, and in STM and professional publishing, the paperback also has its place. Again, there is an economic driver. It is many years since even the wealthiest and most ambitious of libraries could maintain comprehensive collections. One of the ways in which they have responded to increasing prices and decreasing budgets is by buying B format paperbacks. The comparative impermanence of paperbacks is less important than it might superficially seem to be. In fields in which textbooks are regularly updated, the shelf-life of an edition may be little more than two years. A reasonably robust paperback can survive even student use for two academic sessions. Since most libraries now regularly dispose of out-of-date books, especially when a new edition appears, the paperback has found an important niche in a field in which it was almost unknown until the last decade of the twentieth century.

The economics of print-on-paper publishing are seen at their most dramatic in the pricing of reference books and scholarly journals. The principles which were enunciated earlier in this Chapter apply as much to serial publications as they do to books. Only the timescale is different. A newspaper has a shelf-life of a few hours; a weekly and a monthly, a few days and two or three weeks respectively. Scholarly journals, published typically at quarterly intervals, theoretically have a longer life, but in practice are usually sold on subscription before they are even printed. Newspapers, most weeklies, and some monthlies are heavily dependent on advertising revenues as a means of keeping down their costs and hence being able to have a low cover price to stimulate sales. Although academic journals attract some advertising (typically of books in the appropriate field), they are much more dependent on generating revenue through sales. Since these sales are measured in hundreds rather than thousands in many cases, it is inevitable that prices are high. Libraries—which are the principle market for scholarly journals—are increasingly reluctant to pay such prices, and indeed often unable to do so. The pressure for change has become intense.

It is not surprising that it is in the field of academic journals that print-on-paper publishing came to be most seriously challenged in the 1990s. No consideration of formats would now be complete without a consideration of electronic publishing. This takes many forms, and indeed is sufficiently new for the definition still to be somewhat unclear. For our purposes, we shall adopt a very broad definition, which encompasses all the electronic formats and modes of delivery. The most common medium of electronic publishing is the CD-ROM, a device now so familiar that it needs no description. A CD-ROM is, however, merely a carrier. The material which it carries is in the form of digital data (text, graphics, video, sound or a combination of some or all of them), which can also be accessed in other ways. Once a digital file has been created, the issues are those of storage and delivery. The delivery of published material over the Internet, usually using the World Wide Web, is now common, particularly for academic journal literature. Electronic journals are normally delivered in this way, with the subscriber receiving the chosen item at a PC-based workstation where it can be downloaded for local storage and future use, or printed, or both. Electronic books have developed more recently, and suitable reading devices are only now beginning to be marketed.

Since the mid-1980s there has been much speculation, and not a little fear, about the potential impact of electronic digital communications on publishing. Only in the mid-1990s, however, with the advent of the World Wide Web and the near universal use of electronic communications in the academic world, did some of the ideas begin to become commercially as well as technically viable. The use of computers to assist in the editing of books and journals began in the early 1980s. By the mid-1990s there were well-developed models for the parallel production of printed and electronic version of journals and how they might be delivered to libraries, although there were still problems in finding library staff with appropriate skills. The technical success of such experiments led some to argue that there were no fundamental changes in the publishing process, and that print and electronic publication would continue to be complimentary and parallel, with publishers continuing to play the role to which they had been accustomed. Other commentators took the view that electronic publishing was simply about document delivery, and nothing to do with publishing at all.

Practice has been different from both experimentation and prediction. Parallel publishing of academic journals survives, and seems likely to do so for some time; it has been argued to be best suited to the needs of the academic market. Similarly, parallel publishing is becoming common for reference books, and some publishers are digitising their backlists. Some publishers are working on electronic textbooks for student use, and there is experimental work in exploiting the interactive potential of electronic books in literary fiction. In other fields, print is already being abandoned; one major publisher of business information proposes to move entirely to electronic output, and other will surely follow. The common feature of all of these partial and complete shifts to electronic publishing is that the underlying economics are different. Typically, what is sold is not an object (such as a book or journal) but the right of access to a database. This may be in the form of a licence to a subscriber for unlimited access, or it may be that charges are made on a pay-per-access basis. It remains the case that a minimum number of subscriptions is needed to make publication viable, but it has been argued that by eliminating the production and distribution of a printed product, fees can be kept at a modest level far below the inflated prices which now characterize many printed journals.

Many important changes in publishing culture have already followed from these technology-based shifts in production and distribution. Far more than any other technical developments in the last 500 years, the development of electronic publishing has had an impact on the relationship between authors, editors, publishers, librarians and readers. The relationships between the key players in the publishing process is becoming radically different. In the next Chapter we shall consider these relationships in the contexts of the various forms of publishing on which we have focused in this Chapter.