FOR THOSE WHO ARE associated in one way or another with the book industry, it is an endlessly fascinating and infuriating enterprise, a business in which the mix of high culture and low commerce creates unusual excitement and tension. For those on the outside it is a mysterious and glamorous place, populated by famous authors and powerful editors who meet at the Four Seasons to hammer out their legendary seven-figure deals and to shape the course of American literature.
It is also a business about which, oddly enough, a really revealing and satisfying book has never been written. There are standard histories by Charles A. Madison and John Tebbel, but these are essentially authorized versions and lack bite; there is plenty of bite in Thomas Whiteside's The Blockbuster Complex, first published in The New Yorker and then brought out as a book last year, but its view of the industry is so narrow and self-righteous that in the end it serves little useful purpose.
Now we have Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing. It is the work of three sociologists who bring to their task most of the shortcomings of their calling: an enthusiasm for fitting human beings into pigeonholes, a mania for statistics and percentages, and a limited acquaintance with the niceties of the English language. Their study contains much interesting information, though most of it is not as startling as they believe it to be; but they have managed to make it as dull as any sociological monograph.
This is how, not immodestly, they describe their undertaking: "This book is designed to shed some light on the shadow between the moment the author types the last page of a manuscript and his or her book's appearance in the bookstores many months later.... We are aiming here at a full-scale study of the modern publishing industry, a project that has never before been attempted.... Our approach in this book is sociological: that is, we are largely concerned with the rich context of human relations, within and outside the publishing industry, that shapes the production and distribution of books."
Yet their study is hardly as "full-scale" as they seem to think it is. They focus on only three "sectors" of the industry: college textbook publishing, scholarly and university-press publishing, and general trade publishing. Thus they ignore, among others, elementary and high-school textbook publishing (known in the trade as "el-hi"), a hugely lucrative and influential part of the industry. They also concentrate, in their study of trade publishing, on houses that specialize in the "social sciences," and they eliminate the publishing of fiction and literary matters from systematic scrutiny; this is rather like studying everything in the record business except classical music.
One final negative comment, just to clear the decks. The authors share, with the industry about which they write, a hopelessly distorted view of the world in which everything is seen through a New York lens. They are people who can state, with no evidence of humor or irony: "One of us has found over half of the American intellectual elite to be located within fifty miles of the Empire State Building." Their discussion of book reviewing reflects this. So far as newspapers are concerned, they devote seven pages to The New York Times and less than one to those in the rest of the country, The Washington Post included. This is provincial and simplistic in the extreme, not to mention asinine.
Be all of that as it may, there is much in this study that should interest readers who are curious about how the book industry works. There are some illuminating facts: "With total sales of approximately $7 billion in 1980, the entire industry would rank only 46th on Fortune magazine's list... of the 500 largest U.S. industrial corporations in 1980." And: "Despite the visibility of trade publishing, industry data show that it is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. In 1979, adult hardcover and paperback trade books and mass-market paperbacks accounted for an estimated $1.5 billion in sales, or slightly less than one quarter of total industry sales of $6.3 billion."
The book business, in other words, is not very big business. Sales of phonograph records and tapes are, in dollar terms, nearly three times as great as sales of trade books. The industry is "a highly uncertain business in which the supply of commercial manuscripts cannot be guaranteed, and consumer demand is fickle and unpredictable." Each book is "highly specialized and its audience highly targeted." As a publisher assembles his season's list, he has nothing more than an educated guess as to how each individual title will fare in the marketplace.
But the odds are that most will fail. We hear and read about the socko successes -- the Krantzes and Susanns and Micheners -- but the far more typical author is likely to roll up sales of from 5,000 to 7,500 copies and to produce a loss for all involved. A publishing house is not an automobile manufacturer; Simon and Schuster cannot promote and distribute its "line" as Ford does. Each title goes out into the world on its own; if it does not catch on quickly, it is dead in a matter of weeks -- remaindered or, if it's a mass-market paperback, shredded.
Publishers can turn a profit because of the blockbusters, the steady if unspectacular sellers, the backlist -- and because of the various subsidiary rights that books can create. A novel that sells hardly a copy in hardcover can nonetheless make plenty of money off paperback reprint rights, movie rights, foreign rights, television rights -- and many other kinds of rights that most of us have never heard of. This has, as is by now well known, greatly altered the industry. In many houses, "the key people... are not editors but the buyers and sellers of subsidiary rights." It's harder and harder for the serious but marginal book to find a publisher who will bring it out knowing that sub rights will be nonexistent.
Yet such books do find their way into print. If now they land with North Point or Godine or Ecco instead of Holt or Random House or Viking, no great loss to our culture has been suffered; their authors may, in fact, get more care and attention, if less money, than they would at the big houses. And it is also true that many big trade publishers, including some owned by conglomerates, continue to publish authors who make little or no money for them but in whose work they happen to believe.
In substantial measure that is because editors, if now overshadowed in certain circumstances by sub-rights people, are still on the job and because "it is still the case that the remaining craftlike aspects of the publishing industry allow a measure of personal style and judgment to enter into the decision-making process which would be inconceivable in a fully bureaucratic industrial structure." These editors are people of "a certain sophistication, a broad intellect, and a personal style or flair," and the industry still gives them a great deal of room in which to maneuver; though it is certainly possible that the blockbusters eventually will drive them out of business, that seems unlikely.
It is too bad that Coser, Kadushin and Powell write so poorly about these people and their business; they deserve better. Books will appeal to sociologists, to readers whose interest in the subject is sufficiently intense to permit them to ignore the authors' prose, and to no one else. Too bad.