I'm back home, I'm over the jet lag (for now), and I'm looking for something to write about.
It struck me, reading the comments on my various postings about the Amazon v. Macmillan spat in January, that many people don't have the first clue about how the publishing business works — or even what it is. Publishing is a recondite, bizarre, and downright strange industry which is utterly unlike anything a rational person would design to achieve the same purpose (which I will loosely define for now as "put authors books into the hands of readers while making a profit, to the satisfaction of all concerned"). So over the next few blog entries I'm going to make some notes about what's going on ...
Misconception #1: The publishing industry makes sense.
Most discussions of publishing take it as axiomatic that there is a thing called the publishing industry and that the entities within it look similar and work pretty much the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As an author of commercial science fiction and fantasy novels, which is a highly restrictive category I mostly deal with a very specific type of publisher: a mass-market commercial fiction publisher — as opposed to, for example, a University press, a small press, or a vanity press. (NB: the word "press" is often used to mean "publisher", even in this day and age when almost all publishers have outsourced the inky job of running a printer to someone else.) Here's how the mass-market commercial fiction publishers are structured:
At the top of the food chain, there are the big publishing conglomerates; companies like Holtzbrinck, Hachette Livre (itself the publishing arm of Lagardère Group), or News Corporation. You (as a reader) do not buy books from these people, and I (as a writer) do not sell books to these people. Rather, we interact with the publishing groups that they own. They're colossal multinationals, and during the 1980s they went on a buying spree, acquiring smaller (often family-owned or private) publishing companies in a giant game of publishing pokemon. Now they operate as an umbrella, setting goals and corporate policy. If you've wondered where the idiot push for DRM on ebooks comes from, it's from the top down — from the board level of companies that own film studios, communication satellites, newspapers, and a huge chunk of EADS — from executives who know next to nothing about the business of publishing commercial fiction (because it's usually below their radar).
At the level below the multinationals, we see the individual publishing houses owned by the dinosaurs; outfits like Little, Brown (owned by Hachette) or Penguin Group (owned by Pearson PLC). These are still large multinational organizations, but at least they're in the business of publishing books — fiction and non-fiction. Policies originating at this level usually make sense, from the point of view of a publishing industry executive who has risen to boardroom level through the industry during the 1970s to 2000s.
At the level below the multinational publishing houses, we see the individual imprints. Imprints are the vestigial remains of formerly-independent publishing companies, often family-owned or private, which were eaten by the big publishing houses during the takeover wave of the 1980s. Today they maintain a twilight residual existence within the cubicle farms and office suites of the publishing houses, because they're brand names recognized by the reading public. Ace Books, whose logo appears on the spine of my SF novels in the USA, is such an entity. Founded by Aaron A. Wyn in 1952, Ace published until his death in 1967; it continued with financial troubles for another five years before being sold several times, ultimately ending up as part of Berkley Publishing Group. If you turn to the bibliographic information page in one of my Ace novels, you'll see their name; they're another, somewhat larger imprint, existing within Penguin Group. These days, "Ace" is a brand name BPG stamps on their SF novels; "Roc" is the corresponding brand name they stick on Fantasy; "Berkley" goes on non-genre fiction (such as William Gibson's latest novels), and so on. Policies originating at this level come from editors and marketers who interact directly with customers and suppliers (authors), and usually make sense (when not overriden from higher up the pyramid).
So: for my American SF titles, I deal with the editor in charge of the Ace imprint, within the Berkley publishing group (division) within Penguin Group, which is owned by Pearson PLC (who also run educational software companies and publish The Financial Times). It's turtles all the way down!
But this is not how the publishing industry is structured. I've been lying to you, by over-simplifying. The truth is a lot more complicated. What I've outlined above is merely the hierarchical structure of the major commercial trade publishing houses.
In tomorrow's thrilling installment, I'm going to outline the alternatives to the big media conglomerates. And once I've got that out of the way, I can start describing just what it is that I do to earn a living — which, you might be surprised to know, is nothing to do with writing.