Monday, 21 February 2011

Reviewing Publishing as a Profession

Rachel Maund at Marketability recently gave me the opportunity to review Richard Balkwill and Gill Davies new book, The Professionals' Guide to Publishing. It was a useful opportunity to think about the state of the book publishing industry and where we're going.

As with all good titles, the semantics of this one give a heavy hint at the strength of the book: “The Professionals’ Guide…” If I wondered initially why the word “professionals’” was appropriate for a book clearly aimed at those considering a career in publishing (and therefore not yet professionals) it quickly became clear that is a strategic choice. What Davies and Balkwill do with consistent excellence throughout is underline the fact that publishing is a business, and working in the industry requires a firm grasp of a range of professional disciplines. In doing so, it does of course reveal that a career in publishing has not always been thus. Moreover it perhaps unconsciously hints at a potential profound irony; that publishing has finally got a grasp of itself as a profession at just the point that its business model and therefore its structures are on the verge of being blown apart by the digital age.

Chapters focusing on the various major professional roles (Commissioning, Marketing, Sales, Production) give clear insights into the demands of each discipline, and the personality types well-suited to them. These key “discipline” chapters are preceded by looser, more discursive introductory sections that contextualise the whole. All chapters are written in a style that cleverly blends narrative with fact, and which makes some quite complex concepts a remarkably easy read. Worked examples of P&Ls and clear case studies continually move the emphasis from theory to actual. Moreover those who don’t know the authors personally or professionally would be challenged to work out who wrote what – indicative of a highly successful collaboration.

As a denizen of the supply chain, I was frustrated to find sales, distribution and the supply chain lumped together. For me this echoes one of the common misconceptions of our industry – which is that these back office functions are not worthy of close scrutiny. It is clear from their discussion of returns that the authors understand that the publisher’s customer is not necessarily the ultimate consumer. Therefore it is disappointing that there was no acknowledgement that the customer services department (usually outsourced to the distributor) is a key interface with the customer. That distributors provide warehousing is an axiom. That they are in daily contact with customers should be of critical concern to publishers in an age where understanding the consumer is key to survival. I would also have liked more reference in this section and elsewhere to the growth of online resellers – of which Amazon although dominant is far from the only one. Online sales of print books are a key force for change in the supply chain.

Similarly I felt that production was – in a manner perhaps characteristic of our industry – unfairly shunted to end of the chapters on the various publishing disciplines. Just as the supply chain is where the changing relationship between publisher and consumer is thrown into sharp focus, it is production that it bearing the brunt of the challenges inherent in facilitating a whole range of potential products – not just printed books. Buried on page 183 comes the phrase “A whole new approach is now needed because the end product is no longer the printed book…” Yes, this is also acknowledged in the chapter on commissioning and elsewhere– but its impact is really felt in production departments. The chapter concludes “one thing you should draw from this chapter is the way that production has moved from being a back-office service department to a front office partner in product development”. What it doesn’t and perhaps should say is that digital savvy innovators and entrepreneurial spirits are badly needed in production. Davies and Balkwill are correct to say that production has come out of its silo in recent years – but what they don’t acknowledge is that competing industries: gaming; media; digital media; etc. are increasingly dominated by those with technical expertise (Google – one of the most successful businesses on the planet – is run by software engineers). Publishing has to grasp this and put production and its people on at least an equal status with commissioning and editors. Maybe in the second edition of this book (and I have no doubt there will be one) production will come before commissioning. Or then again by then it may be impossible to separate the two.

But these two criticisms are essentially marginal notes on a book that does precisely what it sets out to do with eloquence, charm and detail. The section on law re-enforces the book’s underlying ethos that publishing is a serious professional matter, and I was glad to see a glossary (there’s a whole other book in the making). It’s a shame it was not written ten years ago when publishing as a course at undergraduate and post-graduate level began to gain ground. It should certainly be required reading for anyone entering the industry or thinking of doing so. Moreover it would be a useful background read for anyone employed in the many service industries associated with publishing. There’s no substitute for a thorough understanding of the pressures on one’s clients – and this book certainly provides that. Which is why I shall be making copies available to many of the people working in our business who are in day-to-day contact with publishers and customers.

It is because of its thoroughness that this is a book that both clarifies the construction of the “ship” that is today’s publishing industry and the professional ranks aboard, and in doing so reveals the fact that we are on a voyage through a thickening sea of icebergs. I hope – for all our sakes – that the brightest and the best of the next generation don’t infer from this that we’re already holed below the water-line.