I’ve been asked by the editor of the upcoming Publishers Weekly Book Publishing Almanac 2022 to contribute a chapter looking at the best books about book publishing. It’s one of my favorite topics! Here’s a preview.
Book publishing is of course uniquely situated to publish books about itself. And it has been generous: there are hundreds of titles that can be crowded into a library. And so many different kinds of books: memoirs and histories, how-to guides, economic overviews, studies of the digital transformation of publishing, and some purely academic work. My criteria for inclusion here is this: for someone in publishing, or soon to enter publishing, can the book increase their understanding and appreciation of how the industry functions and what their future role could be?
The all-purpose guides
There are at least a dozen books that distinguish themselves by offering a broad perspective on the undertaking. The starting point has to be Mike Shatzkin’s (and Roger Riger’s) The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford Univ., 2019). It’s intended to be breezy—“a succinct and insightful survey of the industry in an easy-to-read question-and-answer format.” It succeeds.
Follow that with a widely read beginner’s guide to the U.S. trade industry, Thomas Woll’s Publishing for Profit: Successful Bottom-Line Management for Book Publishers (Chicago Review, 2014). It touches most of the bases.
Sometimes overlooked is Joe Biel’s informal but comprehensive A People’s Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business from the Ground Up (Microcosm, 2018). You’ll see that its subtitle follows the advice in the book: “Your subtitle should really distinguish your book from [comparable titles] and clarify your niche.” This is the sort of specific detail that some of the guides overlook. Biel is the founder and president of Microcosm Publishing, a small press that’s guided by a strong set of principles and is doing some great work.
On the edge of academe is the third edition of The Book Publishing Industry (Routledge, 2013), by Albert N. Greco, PW’s Jim Milliot, and Robert Wharton. Its 500 pages go deep into the “consumer” book industry, including history and operations. Notably included within is a 50-page “Marketing and Selling Books” chapter—a topic that always needs more coverage.
Beyond the basics, when I’m asked which book everyone in publishing must read, it’s in fact two books, both by John B. Thompson: Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (second edition, Polity, 2012) and Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing (Polity, 2021).
The books are not short—between the two you’ll be committing to some 800 pages of text. While most of the published reviews rave about his work, some Amazon reader reviews have headlines like “Useful, though dry” or “This is a long, tedious read...”—suggesting, not inaccurately, that Thompson’s style sometimes drifts into the dense language of academe. But push on, as his books reward the effort; no one else has Thompson’s ability to marshal the facts into comprehensive and illuminating accounts of publishing in all its splendor.
If taking on Thompson’s work doesn’t seem too daunting, you may also be ready to purchase the 480-page Oxford Handbook of Publishing, edited by Angus Phillips and Michael Bhaskar (Oxford Univ., 2019). Heavily footnoted, it’s a grand collection of articles on a very broad range of topics, billed as “a comprehensive overview of the different areas and sectors of the publishing industry from both scholars and practitioners” (including Thompson).
I sometimes test the comprehensiveness of a book about publishing by whether it discusses metadata. From where I sit, it’s tough to argue that you’re on top of what’s going on in book publishing without an enthusiastic embrace of the topic. The Oxford Handbook of Publishing fails in this regard—neither metadata nor ONIX appear in the index. A search through the text reveals that metadata for e-commerce is mentioned in passing but not as a standalone topic.
But metadata does receive coverage in Alison Baverstock and Susannah Bowen’s magisterial 500-page How to Market Books (sixth edition, Routledge, 2019). Multiply the number of pages by the number of editions and you’ve got the final word about book marketing. From traditional marketing through social media, there’s really nothing like it.
Hot off the press
Thompson’s Book Wars has been the book-about-book-publishing event of 2021 thus far. Also of note this year is 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 within book publishing and its impact today.
So that’s a quick look at a range of books to inform the faithful. Now check your collection. What have I missed?
Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing analyst and author based on the West Coast who runs the Future of Publishing website. He is also a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.