The truth about publishing

A little while back, while looking for a particular book on the shelves in the Matheson Library, where Monash University Publishing is housed, my eye was caught by another title: The Truth about Publishing, by Stanley Unwin. Perhaps it was the confidence of this declamation, combined with the recognisable name of the author, that made me pick it up.

‘Publishers are not necessarily either philanthropists or rogues,’ it began. ‘As a working hypothesis, regard them as ordinary human beings trying to earn their living at an unusually difficult occupation.’ There’s a man who knows what’s what, I thought. Or something like that. Fundamentally, the truth of this observation, and the value of making it, I think remain. And finding that this book dated to 1926 in its original version, with this ‘extensively revised’ seventh edition being published in 1960, by which time there existed American, German, Spanish, Swedish, French, Danish, Dutch, Czech, Portuguese, Turkish, Indonesian, Hindi, Italian and Japanese editions, I was intrigued to read on. How many of Unwin’s truths remain true? Are there truths that he was able or willing to utter, after a lifetime in publishing, all those years ago, that have now been forgotten, or that for commercial or other reasons can no longer be said publicly? Just how much has the publishing business changed? And can we learn from older ways of doing things?

As these opening lines, and the book’s title, suggest, the point of Unwin’s book is to dispel certain misconceptions about publishing and to say what really exists and how things actually work, from the particular point of view of the publisher (and to be precise, taking account of Unwin’s unrelentingly masculine idiom, the male publisher), though Unwin doesn’t acknowledge this. Sir Stanley, a founder of George Allen & Unwin, a past President of the International Publishers Association at the time of writing, and past President of the Publishers Association of Great Britain, was ostensibly writing ‘to give information to those outside the trade, and particularly to all devoted to literature, whether as writers or readers’ but, I would suggest, was perhaps ultimately writing, however consciously, for other publishers and himself.

Particular point of view or not – and leaving aside the question of the extent to which the book may finally be considered an apologia – the continuing relevance of much of what Unwin had to say was apparent. ‘It is easy to become a publisher’, he relates in a ‘Preface to authors’, ‘but difficult to remain one; the mortality in infancy is higher than in any other trade or profession’. Is this any less true now than then? The same could be asked of his advice for authors:

Remember that it is in your work that the publisher is primarily interested. Let your manuscript therefore be your ambassador and do not mar its chances by insisting upon a quite unnecessary interview …

Your manuscript may be a masterpiece, but do not suggest that to the publisher, because many of the most hopeless manuscripts that have come his way have probably been so described by their authors …

Your manuscript is your baby, maybe your only child, but the publisher finds a dozen or so new babies on his doorstep every morning and has several thousand older children over-running his warehouse and his entire establishment, all of them calling simultaneously for his undivided attention. With the best will in the world, therefore, there is a definite limit to the time he can spend on yours.

Salutary, if also a little pre-emptive of possibly legitimate criticism. Unwin does acknowledge elsewhere the need to try to keep authors informed of the progress of their works, recalling the author WB Maxwell’s pained reference to the publisher’s ‘awful silence’, though also noting in turn: ‘The trouble is that if you begin to give information to some authors, there is no end to the correspondence explaining the information and why you gave it’.

He goes on to observe: ‘The most stable firms are usually those which have a strong back list of publications with a continuous and profitable sale and who therefore have no need to gamble to secure new business.’ Still the case, probably, in spite of the blockbuster phenomenon, and Unwin later advises prospective publishers that purchasing an existing publishing house, no matter how impoverished, is often preferable to starting anew, because the backlist revenue this existing brand can provide may at least sustain the operation while it is being strengthened.

A profitable backlist, of course, is easier referred to than realised.

Railway bookstalls may today not carry a very glamorous commercial aura (where they still exist), but if we interpose airport booksellers for these, Unwin’s advice to authors is again instructive: ‘The railway bookstall proprietors, who see all the new books, know better than anyone else what they can and cannot sell, and if they decide against yours, the chances are at least a hundred to one upon them being right’.

Towards the end of his preface, which contains still more useful insights that I won’t take time to relate, Unwin makes a more philosophical, if also practical, point: ‘The growing commercialization of literature – inevitable though it may be – does not tend to promote more harmonious relations between authors and publishers. It is based on the assumption that manuscripts and books are mere commodities; dead, not living things. Such an assumption ignores the peculiar and indeed parental relationship of the author to his work, the realization of which is the beginning of wisdom in a publisher.’

Was there ever a time when an older generation of literary publishers did not lament the commercialisation of literature? Nonetheless Unwin’s point that books are or at least can be living things, socially, things which affect the feelings, beliefs and actions of individuals and societies, going beyond the commercial realm in their impact and, for that reason, existing in only a quasi-commercial (or monetarily measurable) space of the economy, is I think one that is well made and well worth remembering.

As Unwin goes on to elaborate throughout his book, the nature of the publishing business is that it is not just a business: ‘The control of a publishing business gives unique opportunities for self-expression … The feeling that one may be building with permanent materials, the knowledge that one’s name is associated with books that enshrine profound thought and the triumphs of the creative imagination add a fascination to the best publishing.’ This explains a large part of its undoubtedly enduring appeal (the number of applicants for our Production Assistant role advertised a few weeks ago – 137 – being just the latest evidence of this) as well as, for better or worse, its often precarious nature: publishing quality books is risky and not generally very profitable but is a necessary thing for publishers and nations to do, for both commercial and social reasons: ‘Publishing has rewards to offer far greater than money … but your day’s work will never be done, and it is possible that the better work you do, the less monetary reward you will receive.’

Unwin clearly sees himself as a cultural ambassador for Britain, imparting the best British ideas and values where possible throughout the world, via the book, which he argues is the best means possible for this inculcatory role. He recalls fondly, and obviously approvingly, a scheme in which the British government worked with the National Book Council to facilitate the importing of British books into parts of Eastern Europe by accepting any book returns from bookshops in these territories for use as gifts to foreign dignitaries.

One of the historically revealing parts of the book is that in which Unwin relates his enthusiastic confidence in the growth of English-language book markets in various countries where, even now, these hopes have not been or are only starting to be fulfilled: China, ‘a market with enormous possibilities’, Brazil, ‘a market of special and ever-growing importance’, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, and India: ‘a market of outstanding importance … The English translation of a work written in one of the many vernacular languages, other than Hindi, may easily achieve a larger circulation in India than the original version, whose sales is necessarily limited to the comparatively few who can understand it’. One cannot help reading Unwin’s account with a strong sense of opportunities lost through the unfortunate manoeuvrings of colonial and despotic politics of various kinds in the years after he wrote.

But for all his positivity about the possibilities of publishing, Unwin is at pains to stress also that for a publisher ‘a curious and unusual combination of qualifications’ is required, including knowledge of many different areas of detail and technique associated with books’ assessment, editing, production, distribution, marketing and selling, and the legal environment in which these take place, particularly as this environment pertains to contracts, copyright and libel. Again, much of what Unwin has to say here seems to me both accurate and worth repeating now:

The number of people who consider themselves fully qualified for the post of publisher’s reader is unlimited. The number of those really competent to fulfil that function is extraordinarily small … [The job] ‘is governed by technical and commercial, as well as literary considerations’ …

There is often a ‘right price’ for a book, and in such cases publication at any other figure would spell failure …

[T]o let the desire to publish at a given price determine the number to be printed, instead of the probable demand, is both a snare and a delusion. The amateur publisher constantly makes this mistake and even the most wary publisher is occasionally led into it …

[E]xcept in the case of ‘series’ where a prescribed style has to be followed, each book should be regarded as having an individuality of its own …

[In matters of libel] the onus should surely be upon the author to show that the libel was unintentional …

Either a printer is a book printer or he is not a book printer; the commercial printer who has occasionally printed a book (probably a local directory of a glorified catalogue) is a person to be avoided …

Authors who are specially insistent upon publishers exercising the greatest possible activity in pushing their books seem often to grudge the time necessary for the process …

It can truthfully be said in more senses than one that a publisher cannot spend his time more profitably than in the company of booksellers …

The importance, actual and potential, of the work of public librarians and their influence are alike immense. It is impossible to assess how much they have done to spread a knowledge and love of books …

The more reviews on the day of publication, or within a week thereafter, the better for the book …

It is truly said that the best way to start the sale of a book is to get it talked about by the right people …

The danger inherent in giving the benefit of the doubt to every book in which you are personally interested has perpetually to be guarded against …

He observes further, equally usefully, that the publisher has a capacity to interest others in a book through a carefully selected personal approach; booksellers cannot (or I think he means ‘should not’) ask for bigger discounts and lower prices in the same breath (‘cry for the moon’, as he puts it); sales have a way of dropping off suddenly, just after you’ve done a reprint; when it comes to price, and price reductions, customers always like to think they’re getting a discount, even if they’re paying the proper price; people will buy books at an event whereas they wouldn’t just an hour or so later; blurbs are ‘most difficult to write’ (‘To be read, the paragraphs must be brief; to attract the newspaper editor they must, if possible, have news value; to be of service to booksellers and librarians they must give an adequate description of the contents of the book: possibly indicate the author’s qualifications for writing it’); advertising needs to be targeted to those genuinely interested, it being otherwise of limited value; reviews are the biggest influence on sales, with advertising appearing on his list as the ninth most important element; publishers very commonly deceive themselves as to the value of their stock, being emotionally unable to do the writing down that is required; specialising in particular publishing areas is beneficial (once you have established your expertise in an area, ‘most of the other good books on the subject are likely to come your way’); and ‘In publishing particularly, the different parts of the business need to know what the other is doing and how their own activities affect those other parts … A policy of water-tight compartments is fatal in a publisher’s office.’

Where Unwin goes deepest into matters of operational detail, his book is most obviously dated and we can see most clearly the extent to which the publishing business has changed and ponder the bases of that trajectory, some being more obvious than others. In the early 1960s there were more newspapers reviewing books; booksellers received lower percentages, and generally on firm sale (Unwin complains about the retailers’ percentages rising recently to thirty-three and one third per cent); while Unwin’s worries about people borrowing books from their friends rather than buying them haven’t disappeared altogether, they seem of a much smaller magnitude today (replaced I suppose by larger, digitally inspired copyright concerns); the ‘numerous and highly technical processes, such as paper-making, block-making, printing, and binding, which are employed in the making of a book’ have obviously changed a lot:

Since 1950 there have been many technical developments affecting book production which must in the long run make for speed and economy. Notably, there has been the introduction of various machines for photo-composition, replacing metal-type composition for the impressions on which intaglio and lithographic printing depends. Typewriter composing machines for the same purpose have appeared. In Linotype, teletypesetting reduces composition to almost typewriting simplicity and even makes possible setting by remote radio control …

Printers held stock for the publisher and had only just started charging for doing so. Binding was still usually done by binding firms, not by printers. It was common to print and then leave the printed copies not bound until demand determined. The turnaround time for printing was eighteen weeks. Most sales reps were employees of the publishers and there was a lot more physical sales repping, of course. The digital revolution was germinating in a few minds and laboratories at this time but as far as members of the publishing industry were aware, digital technology as we know it didn’t exist (Unwin’s ‘economy’ of having ‘printed cards and printed form letters’ to save on ‘unnecessary repetitive clerical labour’ points inadvertently to the automation of systematised tasks that computer languages such as XML have enabled).

In Australia and New Zealand, but not in other parts of the world, UK publishers would sell exclusive sales rights to particular bookshops: ‘the granting of the monopoly of the sale’. Various countries had ‘currency difficulties’, i.e. retail customers couldn’t get the required currency to purchase books in (if I understood correctly).

Unwin thought that paperbacks were a ‘valuable adjunct to [but] not usually a substitute for, the conventional cloth-bound book.’ And he noted with exasperation that the ‘sale or return’ method of increasing sales (as opposed to firm sale) ‘has been tried over and over again with disastrous effects … [O]n balance the movement is away from … that basis, and an increasing proportion of the books sold are … supplied “firm purchase”’. These were obviously two (actually interrelated) expectations that were way off the mark, but stepping back into Unwin’s shoes, via his explication of the industry and its dynamics in his experience, it is easy to understand why he thought as he did: consumers had not yet demonstrated themselves to be willing to purchase paperback books in sufficient numbers or at sufficiently high prices to make the focus on paperback publishing sufficiently profitable for most publishers to be able to scale back their cloth-bound publishing (sufficiently) and accept sale-or-return terms. The increased attractiveness of paperbacks as print technology developed and the more general development of a consumerist, disposable-product culture, may have contributed to this growth in demand and, understandably, been very hard for anyone to foresee. (The best economic minds of the 1940s, Stuart Macintyre reminds us in his new history of postwar reconstruction, thought the primary problem at the end of the Second World War would be renewed economic stagnation!)

As Unwin stresses the need for sufficient managerial mastery of the technical dimensions of publishing, he emphasises also, in further comments that have lost none of their relevance, that sound business principles must be followed, careful planning put into practice, and a spirit of entrepreneurialism developed and maintained. Interestingly, he believes that it is when these principles, practical plans and entrepreneurial spirit are coordinated across the publishing industry as a whole that the industry as a whole does best. He is full of admiration for the German and Northern European industries in this regard, and here his assessments appear to have been well founded, with Germany continuing to play a major role in global book trade, including via the Frankfurt Book Fair, still the largest event of its kind in the world, and with the nations of Scandinavia maintaining book industries that are the envy of the rest of the world, not to mention exporting a disproportionately high number of global bestsellers, from Larsson to Knausgård and beyond.

As a member of the former Australian federal government’s Book Industry Collaborative Council (2012–2013), which followed on from the Book Industry Strategy Group (BISG, 2010–2011), I was in the room when representatives of the industry from across the supply chain agreed to the formation of a body to advance the industry as a whole. If felt like an historic moment though at the same time a little surreal. Was it really going to happen? For reasons political, personal, managerial, economic and logistic (to raise only those I can think of), it hasn’t. Instead the current federal government has announced the creation of a National Book Council, along with cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts, with details on what the Book Council will do remaining sparse.

In industry, as in society, effective change requires organisation, and that is an enduring challenge.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Dr Nathan Hollier is Director of Monash University Publishing and a past editor of Overland.

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  1. “the mortality in infancy is higher than in any other trade or profession”?? Bollocks.
    Try making your way in the music industry, then make that statement …

  2. “Authors who are specially insistent upon publishers exercising the greatest possible activity in pushing their books seem often to grudge the time necessary for the process …”

    tee hee …

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