We like to try to keep up with the times, but we all end up doing what we always do. Here’s Harry Bingham recounting his publishing history on Jane Freidman’s blog. His thought was that to establish his new mystery series the ideal publishing sequence would have been e-book, paperback then (maybe) hardback. But publishers can’t do that, and we seem unable to break out of the mould. “Random House wasn’t set up to work like that. There were e-only imprints (Alibi) and there were hardback imprints (Delacorte). There wasn’t, and isn’t, an imprint able simply to publish a title in whatever was most natural to that author and that book.” As insiders we all understand how this comes about: but it really is maladaptive.

I do think that by its nature book publishing wants to be a small-scale business. In the last quarter of the 20th century the entrepreneurial spirit stalking the world got publishing into its grasp too, and people started trying to make more money from books. It looks so easy from the outside: you just need to publish all the bestsellers. Of course we all know this is impossible: you can’t forecast a bestseller; they happen. Some projects look more likely to succeed than others, but that doesn’t mean they will or that other less-likely candidates won’t outstrip them. Companies tried to increase their profit by increasing their output, and the quickest way to do that was to buy other companies and add all their “bestsellers” to your own. Unfortunately this meant you also added all their duds to your own. Scale makes sense in steel manufacture: for books it’s a nonsense. Every book is unique, and will behave in unique and unpredictable ways. Large companies have to have structures, and having structure are unable to improvise. Harry Bingham may be wrong about the desirability of publishing his books firstly as e-books, but his argument does seem to me to make sense. Only a small company, publishing a few books a year, will be able to avoid the rigidity which makes such an improvisation impossible to most of us. At Random House Mr Bingham’s book wasn’t on the Alibi budget, and why would his editor even dream of giving it to them. After all we all have numbers to make, as individuals, and as part of an imprint, long before we get to the overall health of the umbrella of Penguin-Random House. If you’ve spent the time getting this book on board, you’d be insane just to give it away to anyone else. With a small company — ten books a year? — this wouldn’t be an issue.

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