Directions in publishing

The following essay by Alan Swallow is reprinted with the permission of Swallow Press.

The plight of publishing today has become a topic of conversation and of magazine articles. Publishers themselves, like football coaches, have been crying in their towels and have been granting a public look at their innermost financial problems. While the rest of our economy is sitting uneasily on top of expansion and inflating prices, publishing, which is a part of that business economy, has already embarked on a depression we expect to ride before long through our entire economic life. Perhaps a general depression will mean a second depression to publishing. Publishers have reason to cry in their towels.

Like the readers of Berkeley, I am principally interested in this matter because of what it means for the future of the American writer and, indeed, for the future of American culture; but before this question can be examined, we need to know something about how this situation came about in publishing. We need to examine both the short-range conditions, which have brought to publishing an effective crisis before a general economic depression, and also certain long-range conditions which have perhaps even greater significance in the trends we must expect to come.

The immediate crisis stems from war and post-war conditions. During the war publishers were faced, on the one hand, with a book market which rapidly increased two and three fold over the pre-war market; on the other hand, publishers had less paper and relatively fewer manufacturing plants with which to produce the books demanded. They coped with this situation in a common-sense and business-like manner: they made their books smaller in size and introduced other economies in the use of paper and manufacturing facilities; but more importantly, they reduced their lists to fewer titles and put what paper and production facilities they could get into those fewer titles, selling, in the main, many more copies of a published title than was indicated even by the expansion of the market.

While other manufacturers were taking price increases for their wares in the inflationary war period, publishers maintained very much the same price level as before. The reason that the publishers could manage this and still come out with more profit than before lies in the nature of producing and promoting a book. Common is misunderstanding on this point, and from such misunderstanding arise the many “dodged” questions in publishing: why don’t we produce cheaper books, why don’t we produce paper bound books for our trade editions? In book production, economies in the cost of manufacturing a single book lie mainly in two places: choice of manner of production and size of edition. Cheap books may be produced by the automatic methods involved, for example, in the manufacturing of the twenty-five cent “pocket books”; but the method of production can be used only for books of that general format and appearance and can be used only where a printing of a large size can be assured. Whether we like it or not, very few of the titles published in this country (where, for example, books are purchased, on a per capita basis, only about one-fourth as frequently as in Denmark) have any opportunity of selling in even a moderate quantity; therefore, the methods of producing cheap, paper bound books are simply not available to most publishers. Further, they are not available to the trade (as distinguished from the text) book, in which sales possibilities largely have to be tested and in which customer expectations concerning quality of paper, typography, and binding are set in retail sales. If a book must be priced in the several-dollar class, which would be required of small printings of books, whether paper bound or cloth bound, the increase in price is small to make a cloth binding and the trade book we know today. To give one example, a book which now costs a publisher something like sixty cents to produce in 10,000 quantity will still cost the publisher forty-five to fifty cents if the binding is changed to paper, a cent or two less if the paper is cheapened, a few cents less if the type is made smaller and less readable; the possible savings in these directions to the purchasers of the book are likely to be only twenty-five to fifty cents or only a small percentage of the price he now pays for a well-made book.

The war forced certain economies upon the publisher: fewer titles, so that he could concentrate upon each title so that it would be given a better push into the world; reduced use of paper and manufacturing facilities; particularly, larger printings brought about by these factors and by the rapidly expanding book market. And these economies made it quite possible for the publisher to hold the old price for books and still find himself very prosperous.

Soon after the war ended, these conditions for publishing rather quickly reversed. The market started to narrow; book sales have fallen off progressively season by season for two years. The causes for this shrinkage in the market for books are many and are obvious to the reader; but I pause to notice the most pernicious of all, the attitude that reading is a luxury in democratic, educated America, and that in a market filled with all goods, books must give way to refrigerators, automobiles, and gadgets, and must compete with other luxuries.

Meantime, great increases in the costs of book manufacturing were seen season by season, so that, at present, the cost of manufacturing a book is close to twice the pre-war cost for the same book. Increases in costs hit the publisher elsewhere, too—in all overhead and promotional expenses, including rents, salaries, advertising space. (Through an unfair, late action of the last Congress, he and the bookseller are faced with a large increase in book postage, also.)

Finally, publishers used the expanding quantity of paper and greater manufacturing facilities in once again increasing their lists, reprinting out-of-print titles, loading the market with more titles as well as with an increasing total number of books. More titles in a narrowing market meant only one thing—reduction of sales per title published. And, as has been indicated, the smaller the printing of a title, the greater the cost per book in its manufacture.

When other manufacturers faced a similar situation, they promptly increased prices. But the publisher felt that he could not do this to a large extent. By the time he needed the price increase, there was much talk—but very little reality—about leveling off prices and even reducing prices. The publisher had come upon an inopportune time in which to increase. And whenever he tried it, he felt that he met resistance on the part of his bookseller outlets and on the part of the purchaser. Thus he was stuck with a price which represented, in its increase, only a fraction of the increased costs he must pay for production and overhead.

As a result of these factors, the key word in publishing these days is “the break-even point,” that is, the number of sales needed, given a particular book with a particular plan for promotion, to bring back the outlay for the book. In pre-war days, the structure of cost to price in publishing was such that, given an ordinary first novel, modestly presented to the trade, a break-even point might rest somewhere between 2000 and 3500 sales, depending upon the practices of the individual publisher. Today, the same novel with a comparable modesty in presentation, will reach a break-even point only with 7500 to 10,000 sales, depending again upon the practices of the particular publisher. In a shrinking market, the number of books which could make those sales or larger ones grows ever smaller. (And to speak of an average is impertinent, since each title must be individually manufactured and cannot assume a portion of the sales of a book which has sold a great deal better.)

These are the conditions which have brought the immediate crisis to publishing. The common-sense step indicated for the publisher is to decrease the number of titles and to hope to spread the available sales over fewer titles, thus increasing the percentage of titles which sell over the “break-even” point. Indeed, the matter seems quite simple, in theory: no longer accept the book which will sell in the 2500 to 10,000 bracket. In theory, again, the books which expected to sell in this bracket would go unpublished.

This matter is of tremendous import to the serious writer and the serious reader, and, we may assume, to American culture. If publishers took this step completely, probably half of the books published in the past would be placed out of the reach of the commercial publisher today. Many of those books, it is true, we would not miss sorely; but a great many we have needed, and we will need many more like them in the future. Poetry, early work of many a recognized writer, and many a valuable book, even though twentieth of an author, never reaches this sale.

The trouble with this picture of arbitrarily lopping off those titles which do not sell at least 10,000 copies is that it is largely theory. Despite the common-sense step indicated, publishers are not paring their lists markedly, two years after the impact hit them; 1948 will see more titles published than 1947 or 1946, and 1949 is likely to reach very close to the same number. Almost like cultural lag, changes in the patterns of book acceptances are only now operating with any completeness, and only now is the full danger to the good but poor-selling book quite likely to be realized.

Why has the publisher responded so slowly to the need indicated? Here we need to think, for a moment, less of publishing in the over-all sense and more of the individual publisher. During the war, because of need for paper for rapidly selling books, he had let go out of print many titles which had a smaller but perhaps more steady sale. With paper freer and with a narrowing market, these substantial titles needed to be in print, and the authors, now that the publisher could get them into print, demanded that he do so. During the war the publisher had been aggressive in his prosperity, encouraging new talent, granting considerable advances for unfinished work, looking forward to expansion; he had to add to his list to fulfill commitments; the momentum had been generated. Further, a publisher cannot spread his sales to make an average sale and thus bring each title over the break-even point; many factors other than those of a publisher’s presentation and promotion control reception of a book; and should a publisher arrange his presentation and promotion and other controllables so that a “natural seller” would be given little stress in favor of a less fortunate book, he would gain the wrath of a valuable author and lose the possibility of a very large profit on a tremendous seller.

This matter is complex, and we have not reached nearly all the complexities. But I shall mention only two other important reasons why a publisher has difficulty in reducing his lists. One of these can best be discussed, perhaps, under the heading “investments.” Besides obvious investments in a quick-moving book, a publisher normally expect to make other investments. One of these is in a full list, that is, in a list sufficient in size and diversity that the chances of having a number of good sellers will be increased, since good sellers fall into many types and are not always to be predicted. Another investment, of a long-range sort, is in an author. The publisher is as conscious as anyone that, although some early books of an author can be very popular, in many cases an author gradually accumulates the reputation, backlog, and skill which make him a valuable author to a publisher. The records of the early books by such people as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Maugham, and many others are well known and sufficiently illustrate the investments needed in the careers of promising writers. And a third type of long-range investment is in the book which does not follow the usual pattern of quick sales but is likely to sell, perhaps modestly, but over a long period of time. A personal illustration may indicate what is involved. On one of my recent lists is a tremendously valuable book of criticism, a type of writing considered a poor publishing risk at any time. By careful management of as many factors as possible and by reason of the fact that my rather unusual publishing procedures allow a lower overhead than is customary, this book has a lower “break-even” point than is common today. The first printing will just reach this break-even point. Sales of approximately three years promise to reach that point, with the three-year investment just returned. A second printing would call for new investment but would insure that when the second printing was exhausted a little more than the investment could be realized. Thus sales over a period of six to eight years and exhausting two printings might possibly return a little more than the investment which was made during this long time. And a similar but monetarily more optimistic picture may be expected of many a book.

The final consideration for the publisher who needs to reduce his list is that many people in publishing, just as the readers of Berkeley and just as I, are much concerned about the “serious” book which may not have large sales possibilities. These people would feel that a large satisfaction in their work would be denied them if they could not see on their lists an occasional book to which they might point with other than monetary pride. Even for the publisher most callous to these matters, a list without such books is likely to seem to lack prestige in the eyes of the trade, other publishers, and readers.

My feeling is, then, that we may expect the shrinkage in books to be published to come not so much through the reduction of lists by the individual publisher as through the failure of publishers or at least of their trade departments. It is well known now that many publishers are afloat because of the great sales of their textbooks in recent years or because of similar results auxiliary to the job of publishing in the retail field. And many another publisher has practically closed his trade department, keeping just such small staff as can handle the few books which are committed or otherwise indicated for publication. Failure of publishers and of trade departments may even sharpen as conditions continue, resulting in a marked shrinkage of the total number of titles published; this shrinkage will probably be temporary in large measure, since those publishers who can survive on whatever terms will look for any opportunities to expand trade lists again.

As trade lists of commercial publishers shrink, it is possible that other publishers may take up some of the titles. These publishers are two, the university press and the private press. During the last twenty years, particularly, the university press has established for itself a leading place in publishing, largely through books of non-fiction closely associated with scholarly activities and selling in the 1000 to 3500 class. With the increased difficulties for those books which might be expected to sell in the 2000 to 10,000 class, and with increased costs boosting the break-even point for university press books as well, the university press has the opportunity of stepping into a new field. To take full advantage of this opportunity, editors of the university presses would need to change their policy so that they could accept fiction and other books formerly considered the province of the commercial publisher. It is to be hoped that the university press will rise to its opportunities and its responsibilities during this crisis. The private press, such as one of the imprints I am maintaining and such as are found in several places over the country, likewise have a new opportunity and a new responsibility to the writing they would sponsor. It is to be hoped that their number will increase and that their stormy, difficult paths may be smoothed by renewed interest in their work on the part of the booksellers and book buyers. These presses do not have the wide facilities of the commercial publisher for making their works known to a large public; the review, the seller, the buyer in books need to make special effort to discover what these small presses are doing, for during this period we are likely to be more dependent than ever before upon their services to our literature.

The conditions so far sketched I have called short-range, but they fit neatly into certain long-range developments in publishing and serve to deepen to crisis proportions a development which at some time must surely have brought the crisis anyway. There is not space here to sketch a history of publishing, but I would have the reader pause for a moment to think back over such history as he knows, from the days the scribes copied books laboriously and often beautifully by hand, to the printer-publisher, to the bookseller-publisher, to the more recent tradition of the publisher and an entrepreneur economic unit separate both from the printer and the bookseller. During this last phase, the tradition was of the publisher as a man of taste who would accept a manuscript from an author, hire a printer, and produce a book for sale. The books were actually sold by other entrepreneurs, the booksellers, normally, also, people who had some affection for books. The realm of books was reasonably centered in a few people, the writer, the publisher as man of taste, the bookseller as man of taste, and the few buyers also men of taste. In a day when oil monopolies were being made out of little entrepreneurs in oil, or a similar process was going on in destroying several hundred manufacturers of automobiles in favor of the ten or so left—or in a hundred areas—publishing and books were left to their gentlemen of taste.

But publishing also had its inventive geniuses and its people willing to see publishing made into a big business. Too few people visited bookstores and bought books; magazines proved that reading matter could be sold to many millions instead of to a few. So new patterns for merchandising had to be devised. To my mind, there have been three of these, all devoted to getting books to a larger number of people than can be sold through the bookstore. First of these was the device of selling books in department stores, drug stores, five and dimes; the material needed for this outlet, like the store’s other merchandise, had to be price conscious; therefore, books were manufactured for this trade in reprint editions, priced at 59 cents or 89 cents or $1.49, a price possible after a book had proved itself by its sales and some of the costs and royalties could be reduced for these editions. And these books reached a “new market.” In fact, these editions reached a new market not only through such department stores but also because they provided the basic stock, often placed there on assignment by the reprint publisher, for hundreds of would-be bookstores over the country.

Second of the merchandising methods was that of mail selling, resulting in book clubs, from the two giants to the many lesser ones. Selling books in large quantities of a single title, a club could realize all the economies of quantity production, undersell the retail outlet for the books, and add, again, a “new market.”

Third new merchandising idea was to get books into the corner drug store and newsstand, alongside magazines. This involved use of the elaborate and efficient methods developed to merchandise magazines; it enormously extended the possible market but required books priced to compete with magazines. Manufacturing methods were developed to produce books which could compete on a price basis.

Since each of these was a merchandising method and a distribution and manufacturing problem different from that of the traditional publisher-bookseller method, new firms normally sponsored the new developments. They resulted in “subsidiary rights” for the original, or trade, publication. Closely associated with these was the development of the movies, which added a new outlet for stories and provided still another “subsidiary right” to an original publication.

Gradually the position of the publisher has shifted in response to this developing situation. Particularly under the stress of the recent crisis conditions, this changed position is clear. Many a publisher now is not making money or is frequently losing money on his activities as a trade publisher; he is breaking even or showing a small profit because of his share in the subsidiary rights to the books he publishes. His economic role, in fact, has changed; he is hardly any longer an entrepreneur in his own right but, instead, is entrepreneur for others interested in his books. He is the principal proving ground for books which can be successfully handled by those interested in merchandising the literary material in reprints, book clubs, or movies. He is now more successful economically as a publisher, the more material he can deliver to those who stand behind him; indeed, today he is largely dependent upon them for his continuing existence.

These conditions, I think even more than the crisis out of short-range conditions—which may or may not be long-range, also— have tremendous implications for the future of American writing. The type of book suitable for moving up the ascending ladder of “rights” from the hard-cover reprint, paper reprint, book club, to movies (in approximately increasing selectivity of number of titles used), we know by experience to be extremely limited. And the economy of the present trade publisher puts a premium for his existence upon good guesses regarding the books suitable for such uses, and a gradual pruning away of the books which don’t have that chance.

With economic lines thus drawn, it is obvious that “smart money” would see the advantage of having the various types of merchandising working closely together, each governing, insofar as it is feasible, the choices to be made by the others. A condition for monopoly existed, and monopoly has been growing. Prototype at present is the vast Doubleday empire, which in its associated firms, controls one of the largest trade publishing houses, one of the largest publishers of hard-cover reprints (the various Garden City imprints), and several book clubs, including the Literary Guild. Movie interests, too, have seen the folly of awaiting developments under the complete control of others; gradually these interests have participated more and more in development of manuscript material, in selection of books for attention through prizes and other devices, and, just recently, in editorial activities of various publishing houses. No Standard Oil is on the immediate horizon in publishing, but the economic conditions for such monopoly are present in publishing today, aggravated by the present crisis. Traditions in publishing may prove strong enough to resist this direction. At present, the decision seems some distance in the future; yet each day decisions are being made in one direction or the other and every reader may well govern his own choices, insofar as he can, to prevent monopoly in one of the few areas yet left to us in which the tradition of the man of taste and good will is not completely dead.

We may well note that in this picture the role of the bookseller has been changing, also. New methods of merchandising have sold some books better than he, and he has little chance for equal competition with these methods. He is faced with shrinking sales and increasing overhead; as a merchandiser, he has long made less on his capital and effort than almost any other merchandiser of goods. Efforts to increase the number of bookseller outlets are likely to endanger some already in existence and are hampered by the poor financial returns of the book trade. Many present outlets are endangered as department stores, finding that space and personnel and advertising devoted to books return less than the same devoted to clothing or other departments, either close their book departments or reduce them to smaller chances. Although relatively few booksellers have tried to develop the potentialities of the role, bookselling seems to be forced gradually toward a role comparable to that of the gift shop or similar establishment which caters to individual needs and tastes; perhaps the bookseller needs to develop even more his ability, which no other book merchandiser has, of providing a book on psychology needed by this customer, the self-help book needed by the worker, the book of poems called for all too infrequently. Such personalized service, as opposed to the vast impersonalized merchandising of the book clubs and the reprint outlets, is not normally profitable and provides a small market for the publisher; yet these books are needed and perhaps even a larger market can be developed for them through personalized bookselling.

Both the short-range and the long-range conditions for publishing are deeply, deeply disturbing. It is hardly possible to think that our literature will be defeated by complete commercialization into the cheap and shoddy, or that, in another long-range development, “serious” books would need to be charitably “sponsored” and the commercial publisher deteriorate to the level of the commercial magazines; yet, like atomic warfare, conditions for the grisly prospect confront us each day we go to our literary labors.

What will happen to provide a new direction? At this point I must lapse even more into the personal. I am a relative newcomer to publishing, having cut my teeth on the private press and still maintaining such a press as something, I believe, of great value in publishing today; this imprint is called Alan Swallow, Denver. And even as my efforts extend into the field of commercial publication, through the joint imprint of The Swallow Press and William Morrow and Company, my role is that of one interested in “serious” writing; or, through my association with the firm of Sage Books, Inc., or as director of The University of Denver Press, the role is that of sponsoring valuable writing of all sorts coming from the West. These roles hardly fit me for suggesting directions. But I should like to remark that it seems evident that “muddling through” will not provide an answer, certainly not an adequate answer, to the problems which confront good publishing today. All palliative efforts are valuable, efforts to streamline production, to hack a cent of cost here and there, or to expand our outlets; every cent in these realms becomes large in the problem which faces us all. But they are palliatives, and unless they can be pyramided into something fairly large-scale, sufficiently large-scale, in fact, as to make something like a hundred percent change in one of the economic conditions governing publishing today, they are not likely seriously to affect the general development. The stage is set for something revolutionary—for the person who can think of something entirely new in procedures. Perhaps the new could come in book manufacturing, perhaps in merchandising, perhaps in another place. Short of that, we must muddle through and do the best we can.

So far, of course, we are far short of that. Our immediate guesses can be narrowed and must be only guesses. One direction does seem indicated to me, unless the failure of houses and monopoly get us first—and that is greater specialization. As techniques have grown to set the conditions for fast selling of books of temporary interest, and as merchandising methods have been invented to handle these well, perhaps we may look forward to a specialized cooperation (or monopoly concern) to present such books. I think it conceivable that the bestseller type of book, which publishers can spot a little more easily than before and can “put over” better than before, may, through the cooperation of all subsidiary interests, including the movies, sell these books in cheap editions very widely, particularly through department store, mail, and newsstand facilities. “Originals” may well be handled in these editions as well as proved books and the screening of books for the process be done by representatives of the various interests in the book, without much use of the present trade publisher with his groping and rather uneconomic methods and without the use of the relatively uneconomic bookseller. Much as the “rental library” type of book is handled as a special type of publishing today, so perhaps our very big but momentary sellers may be handled as a special publishing function in the future.

What will be left? After the volatile stuff is gone, remains the more permanent ash, and I believe my readers will join me in thinking these the best books of all. So long as the price-cost situation is so terribly critical for these books, we must strive through any efforts we can make—choosy buying of books, encouragement to non-commercial publishers, even direct individual help* to see that good books get published when they have little other chance. However small it is—and it must seem appallingly small in the strait we have entered—each person must help in his own measure. I wish that I might relieve him of his responsibilities and say that some man, somewhere, will right all the wrongs and lead us into the meadow of a great future literature, recognized as it deserves; but each of us is that person.

*A poet friend of mine has suggested an action which may well be helpful in many situations during this period. He has proposed that if a manuscript of poetry comes up which deserves publication and would seem to him worthy of support, but would sell very poorly, he would like to contribute a small fee to help assure publication; he would expect nothing in return except that he might wish to secure a few copies of the publication to use for Christmas gifts. Perhaps he has suggested a means for honorable, yet effective, means for widespread “sponsorship” of valuable books.

This essay originally appeared in Berkeley, Number 5 (1948) and is reprinted from An Editor’s Essays of Two Decades by Alan Swallow (Experiment Press, 1962) with permission.

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