Book Review: The Publishing Business: From p-books to e-books by Kelvin Smith

The Publishing Business: From p-books to e-books (Kelvin Smith)
Readers of The Independent Publishing Magazine will know that we don’t do many book reviews here. In fact, over a period of five years, I think we have reviewed less than six books, and two of those reviews were editions of Mark Levine’s Fine Print of Self-Publishing. Revealing this will probably alert readers of TIPM to the fact that we only review books within the business/education genre—specifically books on the business of publishing, the publishing industry, and, of course, self-publishing—and there is a shortage of really good books in this area. Take note; I said really good ones!
In reality, there is actually an abundance of books about self-publishing and e-book publishing—some written by freewheeling marketers out to make a quick few dollars; many others are self-published, and are perfect examples of how not to self-publish! With so many changes in the industry, it is understandable that mainstream publishers have been reluctant to release books about the industry containing any definitive blueprints as to where the future lies.
Kelvin Smith’s The Publishing Business: From p-books to e-books, the first book published in AVA’s Creative Careers series, makes no bold prophecies of the future, but, instead, seeks to bridge the gap for creative graduates between education and a first job in the industry. However, after reading the book, I couldn’t help feeling that the book would be more suitable as a general accompaniment to a graduate or post-graduate course, rather than a book suitable for those making the step into the industry. Kelvin Smith does a fine job by including discussion questions at the end of each of the seven chapters, and many of those questions lead seamlessly to the next chapter. I did feel that a graduate would have asked many of those questions long before completing their degree. But this is actually where the book really has its strongest appeal—not engaging in academic language, and, instead, trying to demystify the industry rather than present it as some complex and unique form of business. In doing so, Smith has done more to make the publishing industry appealing to young creative graduates than any academic with a beard and wire-rimmed glasses. This book will appeal to anyone with a casual interest in the intriguing world of the modern publisher and many self-publishers would learn a thing or two about how publishing works from the ground up.

The book, packed with plenty of colour illustrations, is beautifully designed and well formulated with chapters ranging from publishing fundamentals; the planning and choices modern publishers have to make; the roles in publishing; the flow of a book from an author’s manuscript to a reader’s hands; the various intermediaries in the process; print, design and production processes; through to marketing, distribution and sales. Too many books like this one can spend chapter upon chapter examining the history of publishing and the revolution the print press had, but while Smith does doff his cap to history, the book is grounded in quotes from some of the most insightful and seminal pieces written about publishing over the past couple of years.
Some of the chapters finish up with case studies, activity pieces and questions and I did feel that these could have been greatly expanded upon. It was as if the book was first conceptualised as a book for course study and accompaniment or one for those interested in the industry in general, but somehow changed during its writing and commission and ended up falling between both stools without fully delivering on either application. That should not take away from what Smith’s book offers the reader, and it is a masterful accomplishment to bring together so much between the covers about an industry literally changing month by month. I’m reminded—just as one example—of his thoroughly expansive pieces in the book on pricing and bookseller discounts, and how news today of HarperCollins’ abandonment of Agency Pricing following the USA DOJ’s legal declaration can quickly change the digital landscape in publishing.

The real core of the book comes into its own in the final two chapters, examining print and digital publishing and its effects on workflow within a publishing house and the changes in marketing communication, the way sales teams work, and the book supply chain. This is perhaps the most insightful part of the book and the place many coffee and pizza-stained fingerprints will be left. Smith takes a look at the thorny issues of consumer choice, discoverability and disintermediation (bringing the creator and consumer closer together) and I felt it was the one real area where the author could and should have spent greater time exploring the models of business now operating in the publishing world. This was a real opportunity to examine self-publishing (not something specifically aligned to digital publishing), new monetization streams for publishers, and the converging worlds of publishers as content managers and service providers. I’m thinking of those graduates again, and I know many may have dreams of working for Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins or Penguin, but the reality is that most will end up working within the service side of the industry in the years to come and not the glamour side.
This book was a real pleasure and experience to read and Smith clearly had his pulse on what is new and developing in the industry. It is thorough and sticks firmly to how the core of the industry works today. His final case study featured Persephone Books, a publisher very much of the modern age, but with an eye on quality and tradition. It was apt to finish on such a publisher because it represents what is important and good about publishing—proving that the best of the old and new can work harmoniously together. Therein lies the real message within the pages of this book. Smith didn’t pander to my interests in self-publishing or feel the need overplay it or beef up its impact on the industry. It was subtly mentioned and acknowledged in many areas without a fuss being made. Maybe that is how it should be.
The Publishing Business: From p-books to e-books is an introduction to the publishing industry as it is today. It stimulates and promotes curiosity and investigation from the graduate to the accidental author and publisher. This is neither a history nor complete compendium of publishing today, but it is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand how the modern publishing world works and wants to play any part within it.
The Publishing Business: From p-books to e-books
by Kelvin Smith
AVA Books
Published August, 2012

RATING: (on Amazon 4/5) TIPM Rating 7.8/10
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