Elisabeth Sifton has a long and thoughtful piece in the current issue of The Nation. I disagree with the fundamental premise — that the woes of the book business are primarily due to bad decisions or judgments by the leaders of the business rather than large forces that are changing the ground on which the book business walks. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to like in the piece and some interesting history in it as well.
I was reminded of a story my Dad used to tell by these words from Sifton:
“Publishers and writers have for centuries conspired and fought over words, sentences, chapters, fonts, illustrations, paper, trim size, binding materials, jacket design…G.B. Shaw insisted on a specific typeface…Edmund Wilson on an unusual trim size…”
In the 1950s, Len Shatzkin was in charge of manufacturing for Doubleday before he got a much larger brief as “Director of Research” (and how that happened is a story I have promised to tell and someday I will.) Doubleday owned its own presses in its Garden City plant. Each printing press works with an optimum size paper (a sheet size with two dimensions if sheet-fed; a roll width if a web press) and that optimum paper size delivers an optimum trim size. By optimum, I mean the trim size that puts all the paper into the book, not trimming off and wasting some of it. For example, the trim sizes that worked best with the sheetfed presses I was familiar with early in my career were 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 and 6-1/8 x 9-1/4. If you used a size that was slightly smaller than that in any dimensions, you just cut off paper and threw it away. But if you wanted a trim size larger in either dimension, you couldn’t print 64 pages on one side of a sheet, so you would throw away even more paper and would increase your costs of folding and binding at the same time.
Being a very practical man and one who hated waste long before any green movement pointed it out to him, Len set about to standardize trim sizes at Doubleday to deliver only the most efficient sizes. Those efforts in the early 1950s constituted the first time trim size standardization was attempted in the trade publishing business (although it had already been done for rack-sized mass-market paperbacks.)
One of Doubleday’s top authors — Len told me it was Eudora Welty; my Mom told me after Dad died that it was somebody else, but I can’t remember who she said it was and now she’s also not available to be asked — had, her editor pointed out, always had her books of a particular size, which was about 1/8 of an inch larger in one dimension than the maximum the sheets could efficiently deliver. The editor insisted that it would be simply impossible to live with a change in the trim with such an established and successful author. Publishing then being not so dissimilar from publishing now, the editor (presumably also speaking for the illustrious author) carried the day.
Now you’re going to find out why my incredibly smart, charming. and accomplished father might not always have been the most popular person in any company he worked for.
A few months later, Dad invited the editor in question up to his office. The new Welty (or whoever…) book had just been printed and Len put two copies on his desk, one on each of the corners facing his guest, the editor. The editor was excited to see his important author’s new oeuvre delivered and he picked up one of the copies. Of course, he quickly noticed that there were two copies.
“Take a look at both of them,” Dad said.
So the editor did. He opened each of them. He flipped through the pages of each. He looked at them together and said, “is there anything different about them?”
“Yes,” Len said. “This one is the one I wanted to manufacture, but you told me the size would be unacceptable. And this one is the size you insisted on, which we have delivered at an extra cost to the company of X cents per copy.”
It became considerably more difficult after that for editors to persuade management to deviate from the standard trim sizes.
One frequent topic of Len’s derision was publishers printing for margin rather than strictly for need. He was very fond of making this point: “It isn’t the unit cost of the copies you print that matters; it is the unit cost of the copies you sell.” The point is: avoid printing books you won’t sell. So don’t print for margin, print for need.
At one point in the early 1990s, I happened on the information that there had been paper rationing right after World War II when Dad was production manager at Viking. “Boy, that must have made them smarter about what they printed,” I said to him. “I’m thinking how painful it would be that you couldn’t reprint Book A because you had overprinted Book B and you didn’t have any more paper to allocate.”
“Oh, they were smarter then,” Len said. “But that’s not why.”
“When I was a young man at Viking, it was Harold Guinzberg’s company. The money to print things was his money. If he spent money in September to print books he didn’t need until next June, he might not have the cash to take his family to Florida in the winter. The money wasn’t theoretical, like it is in these big corporations with MBAs making the decisions. It was real.”
I saw this effect a few years later when I was consulting at Sterling just before they were bought by Barnes & Noble. Like Harold Guinzberg, Sterling’s principal owner, Lincoln Boehm, made the printing decisions and took home about half the cash profits at the end of every year. Lincoln also made extremely conservative printing decisions, perhaps aiming for a year’s supply, but being rigorous in not printing more at any time than he was pretty sure he could sell in the foreseeable future. During Boehm’s tenure, Sterling did second printings of virtually every book they published — more than 90% of them — and hardly ever had a significant quantity to remainder.
More publishers would be more prosperous if they had a greater respect for the value of cash and were less zealous about pursuing illusory margin that is purchased by tying up their dollars and escalating risk. Since we are in a time when de-leveraging is occurring throughout the economy, these truths are likely to be rediscovered even without the advantages of owner-management.
I’ve got three BEA appearances coming right up. “Stay Ahead of the Shift”, a speech about publishing’s future at 11 on Thursday. “XML for Editors”, a panel with Brian O’Leary and Laura Dawson at 3 on Thursday. And “Digital Debuts Tool Time” with BookOven, Smashwords, Cooler Reader, and Filedby at 9:30 on Friday morning.