I was asked by the editor of the next Editors Weekly Book Publishing Almanac 2022 contribute a chapter on the best books on book publishing. This is one of my favorite subjects! Here is a preview.
Book publishing is of course particularly well placed to publish books about itself. And it has been generous: there are hundreds of titles that can be crammed into a library. And so many different books: memoirs and stories, how-to guides, economic insights, studies on the digital transformation of publishing, and some purely academic work. My criteria for inclusion here are: For someone into publishing, or soon to be entering publishing, can the book increase their understanding and appreciation of how the industry works and what could be his future role?
There are at least a dozen books that stand out for offering a broad perspective on the business. The starting point must be that of Mike Shatzkin (and that of Roger Riger) The book industry: what everyone needs to know (University of Oxford, 2019). It claims to be airy: “a succinct and insightful survey of the industry in an easy-to-read question-and-answer format.” He succeeds.
Follow that with a widely read beginner’s guide to the American business industry, Thomas Woll’s Publishing for Profit: Effective Results Management for Book Publishers (Chicago Review, 2014). It touches most of the bases.
Sometimes overlooked, Joe Biel’s informal but comprehensive speech A Popular Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable and Meaningful Book Business from Scratch (Microcosm, 2018). You will see that its subtitle follows the advice of the book: “Your subtitle should really distinguish your book from [comparable titles] and clarify your niche. This is the kind of specific detail that some guides overlook. Bienne is the founder and president of Microcosm Publishing, a small press driven by a strong set of principles and doing a great job.
At the gates of the academy is the third edition of The book publishing industry (Routledge, 2013), by Albert N. Greco, PWis Jim Milliot and Robert Wharton. Its 500 pages delve into the “mainstream” book industry, including history and operations. The chapter includes a 50-page chapter “Marketing and Selling Books”, a topic that still needs more coverage.
Beyond the basics, when I am asked which book everyone in publishing should read, they are actually two books, both by John B. Thompson: Culture merchants: the world of publishing in the 21st century (second edition, Polity, 2012) and Book wars: the digital revolution in publishing (Politics, 2021).
Books aren’t short – in between, you’ll be engaging in some 800 pages of text. While most of the published reviews rave about his work, some Amazon reader reviews have headlines like “Helpful, albeit dry” or “It’s a long and tiresome read …” – suggesting, no mistakenly, that Thompson’s style sometimes derives from the dense language of academia. But keep going, for his books reward effort; no one else has Thompson’s ability to piece the facts together into comprehensive, insightful accounts of the edition in all its glory.
If taking on Thompson’s work doesn’t seem too intimidating, you may also be ready to purchase the 480 pages. Oxford Publishing Manual, edited by Angus Phillips and Michael Bhaskar (Oxford Univ., 2019). With numerous footnotes, this is a large collection of articles on a very wide range of topics, presented as “a comprehensive overview of the different areas and sectors of the publishing industry at the both by academics and practitioners ”(including Thompson).
I sometimes test the completeness of a book on publishing by determining whether it deals with metadata. From where I am sitting, it is difficult to say that you are aware of what is going on in book publishing without enthusiastic acceptance of the subject. The Oxford Publishing Manual fails in this regard: neither the metadata nor ONIX appears in the index. A search of the text reveals that metadata for e-commerce is mentioned in passing but not as a stand-alone topic.
But the metadata is covered by the masterful 500 pages of Alison Baverstock and Susannah Bowen. How to market books (Sixth Edition, Routledge, 2019). Multiply the number of pages by the number of editions and you have the final say on the marketing of the book. From traditional marketing to social media, there really is no such thing.
Fresh from the press
Thompson’s Book wars has been the 2021 book-about-book publishing event so far. Also of note this year is the Keel Hunt’s The family business: how Ingram transformed the world of books (West Margin), which offers both a (sanitized) history of the Ingram family and an insightful account of Ingram’s rise in book publishing and its impact today.
So this is a quick glance at a range of books to educate the faithful. Now check your collection. What did I miss?
Thad McIlroy is a West Coast-based electronic publishing analyst and author who runs the Future of Publishing website. He is also a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.
A version of this article appeared in the 8/16/2021 issue of Editors Weekly under the title: Launch the book for publication