Some Things That Were True About Publishing For Decades Aren’t True Anymore

This post, by Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on his The Shatzkin Files blog on 1/9/12.

Back when my father, Leonard Shatzkin, was active with significant publishers — the quarter century following World War II — he observed that very few books actually took in less cash than they required. That is not to say that publishers saw most books as “profitable”. Indeed, they didn’t. They placed an overhead charge of 25% or 30% or more on each book so most looked unprofitable. But that didn’t change the fact that the cash expended to publish just about every book was less than the cash it brought back in.


The exceptions were usually attributable to a large commercial error, most commonly paying too much of an advance to the author or printing far more copies than were needed. But, absent that kind of mistake, just about every book brought back somewhat more revenue than it required to publish it.

This led Len to the conclusion that the best strategy for a publisher was to issue as many titles as the organizational structure would allow. That was a lesson he passed along to the next generation of publishing leadership that came under his influence. And the leading proponent of that business philosophy was Tom McCormack, who worked for Len at Doubleday in the late 1950s, then went on to Harper & Row before he ascended to the presidency of then-tiny St. Martin’s Press in 1969. Tom often credited the insight that publishing more books was the path to commercial success as a key component of the enormous growth he piloted at St. Martin’s over three decades.

(I checked in with Tom, who is long-retired as a publishing executive but a very active playwright, about how many books didn’t claw back the cash expended. He told me that his “non-confirmable recollection” is that the percentage that did at least get their money back ranged from 85% to 92%. He recalls “incredulity” from his counterparts in other houses, whom he believes simply couldn’t “wrap their minds around the meaning of the statistic: revenues minus disbursements.” He went on to tell me that this number “seemed effectively irrelevant to them. They had an overriding and deeply flawed notion of something they called title-profitability. They thought they were analyzing the profitability of a title with their ‘p&l’.”)

Despite the apparent immutability of the fact at the time that most titles brought in incremental margin, many publishers who were losing money would come to the opposite conclusion. They would decide they should cut their lists, pay more attention to the titles they published, and create more profits that way. I remember discussing the futility of that approach in the 1980s with my friend and client, Dick McCullough, who was at that time the head of sales at Wiley. When I observed that the publishing graveyard was littered with the bones of publishers who pursued cutting their lists as the path to profits, Dick said of their efforts to cut “yes, and very successfully too”.

I got another lesson about this reality in the late 1980s when a company I consulted to (Proteus Books) sued its distributor (Cherry Lane Music) for a failure of “due skill and competence” in the sales efforts for Proteus Books. One of Proteus’s expert witnesses was Arthur Stiles, who had been Sales Director at several companies, including Doubleday, Lippincott, and Harper & Row. Stiles confirmed that big and competent publishers routinely put out thousands of copies of titles in advance of publication, with extremely few failures in terms of getting the initial placements. He was testifying in a time that was still like what my father experienced: the industry’s title counts were growing, but so were the the number of bookstores in which they could be placed.

Those days are over. And, coupled with the ebook revolution, the implications of that are profound.


Read the rest of the post on The Shatzkin Files.

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