The business of book publishing: when the encyclopedia salesperson is uploaded to the cloudClara Pont
This is the third instalment of four publications that aim to identify some of the trends of the twenty-first-century book industry by uncovering its past.
The dust that covers a book in a bookshop is not always a sign of poor quality., Instead, it can symbolize the difficulties to sell a good that is not always to the taste of an entire society, but just a few.
Doubtlessly, bestsellers have helped many publishers continue to produce content that targets a specific audience. However, during recent years and with the arrival of the internet and other technologies, the sector had to dig to its deeper roots to extract new formats to reach the mind of world readers.
Many business models have emerged to tackle the digital disruption, adapting sometimes the old way of working to the online and interactive environment. Another way to say it: the encyclopedia salesperson has not disappeared; they have only been uploaded to the cloud.
Book publishing, a history of humanity
Books need to follow a business model to be sold. If you are in the publishing industry, you know the book trade is not one of the easiest businesses to work in. Literature and finance cannot be enemies. In fact, books have been treated as goods since printing-dominated merchant production and manuscript books disappeared at the end of the fifteenth century.
The in-octavo format, which is the size of a printing sheet folded in eight, forming 16 pages, was a main determinant in the book industry first success. Many formats came after that. However, the book publishing history is not as linear as it seems. Although the figure of the bookseller as a professional started to emerge and associations began to be created, the sector had to suffer from political interests in addition to religious conflicts.
Control. Power. Censorship. Piracy. The book publishing industry could write its own saga, since every century brought about new chapters of change and innovation. If the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were all about regulation, the eighteenth century brought a breeze of freedom to publishers, as printed books became the vector for the philosophy of Enlightenment. Later on, the nineteenth century became the age of mass-circulation.
A book for the price of a pack of cigarettes
Then came the twentieth century and the emergence of paperback novels; suddenly everyone could read classical authors for the price of “a pack of cigarettes”. That was the slogan of Allen Lane who started the Penguin publishing house.
After spending a weekend with world-famous author Agatha Christie, Lane realized that there were no quality books available in train stations, only magazines and pulp fiction. To ensure the success of his business model, he had to sell at least 17,000 copies of each book he published, yet after just one year, three million copies of the first ten published books of the new house were sold: “Volume was key to profitability” (Trubeck, 2010).
During WWII books were small enough to be carried in the pocket of soldiers. In France, Lane’s model was also adopted in 1953 by Henri Filipacchi, general secretary of the Hachette Librairie who wanted everyone to have access to literature.
At this time, the Livre de Poche (French for pocket book) was considered as a true cultural revolution by supporters of democracy, whereas others argued that it was a belittlement of literature. In 1958 eight million copies were sold, and sales reached 28 million dollars by 1969.
How to publish a bestseller?
The proper mix between a philosophy of the common good and business sense has made dreams come true. But there’s a recurrent dream in the mind of publishers: a bestseller. According to Nielsen Book Data, the five genres that are most likely to generate bestsellers are: General and Literary Fiction; Children’s Fiction; Crime, Thriller and Adventure; Young Adult Fiction and Romance and Sagas.
Looking at data by titles, out of the 10 bestselling books of all time, seven are from the Harry Potter saga, two are from Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code, and the last one is Fifty Shades of Grey. The role of the publisher is not only to uncover new talents but also to identify the right moment to offer a type of genre that will fit and feed society the moment it is published.
Nowadays, there are certainly more ways to publish a book than days in a year. Yet, there is no magic trick involved in the success of a book: success comes mainly through work and the collaboration of experts from many fields.