What Makes a Press Run? - June 25, 2012
Categorizing publishing houses can be done in many ways, but one that I particularly like is by activity performed that characterizes the house. Three of the most popular could be editorially-run, marketing-run, and sales-run. Perhaps marketing-run houses are really a subset of sales-run, but everyone in publishing knows that there are sales-run houses that do not seem all that talented or concerned about marketing at all. They may have a niche that appeals to a specific small market that buys the preponderant amount of their books, and with minimal outreach can count on that market to come to them. Or they may be careful about how to increase sales or, perhaps better, sales dollars, in other ways: husbanding their overhead, keeping prices high for titles they have built-in markets for and not getting into any field where the competition is too strong, producing books that can avoid royalties, etc.
But if there are houses that are sales-run without marketing, there are likely ones that are marketing-run without proportionate sales. Sometimes the marketing is for the sake of the house’s or the mother organization’s reputation, or it could be that the publishing house itself is associated with other entities that make the money that came because of the reputation made by the house. Perhaps the press serves as a conduit of ideas more so than a manufacturer of product, so the real money will not be expected to come from the press, or the house is there to stimulate or otherwise serve a segment from the larger entity, as is the case with some university presses.
An editorially-run house may be considered a hybrid, since every such press invariably must concern itself with sales too. What separates them from the sales-run press is that there is a notion that “good will out” and they will achieve their sales only through careful handling of editorial matters.
One would think that trade publishers would be the archetype for sales-run press, and scholarly publishers for editorially-run presses, but there is no one-to-one correlation. By no means is every scholarly press or university press centrally concerned with editorial matters. A university press, for example, may be at the beck and call of many forces at the university . . . the faculty, the administration, even the alumni may place large demands that make the press’s offerings look a little strange to the objective observer. And there are whole areas in trade publishing that require meticulous care in the product they publish . . . from art publishers to publishers of baseball statistics.
Since it is probably true that all three of these activities occupy every press, where they differ is in emphasis, which can be seen quantitatively or qualitatively. If a press achieves an ongoing reputation, it has what potentially is one of the most important characteristics possible, a personality.
A personality, assuming that it is seen as a good one, is invaluable, not because everyone will admire that press. In fact, the nature of having a personality means that you are not all things to all people, and will certainly lead to many people thinking of that press in a negative way. But without a personality, the press suffers just as much as any business would without a personality: they languish in bad times, fail to find good friends who will stick by them, and are not missed when they almost certainly go out of business. This happens in all sorts of occupations, and it happens in publishing too.
Having a personality means that someone (make that “some one”) is in charge who has, in one way or another, stamped his or her own vision, hard work, and talent, i.e., a personality, on the press.
Personalities, like all human endeavors, can change. One may very well say that it must change. Handling change can be the most difficult work there is. A successful press is often, but not always, one that has kept its personality with different personnel. For many, though, change becomes the choice of personality or personnel. I think that most of the time those presses who choose personnel over personality will end up with neither.