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A Career In Publishing

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

It is not often that we realize our indebtedness to the publisher for all the reading matter, light and heavy, which amuses or instructs us. We seldom think of what would happen if authors depended upon their own efforts for the production of their works in a form suitable for general distribution. All the most beautifully hand- or typewritten copies of his work which one man might turn out in the course of years would be unequal to one printed edition of the work as produced by the publisher. The publisher makes reading matter available to the public, easy of access and of dissemination, and capable of being preserved through long periods of time. The publisher is to be thanked for much of our progress, for through his work knowledge is preserved and spread, and the desire for its acquisition stimulated. Newspapers, magazines, textbooks, technical works, novels, poems and all the other types of literature which afford us entertainment and instruction owe their existence as printed matter to the publisher.

It may perhaps be said that the printer could do what the publisher does. But this is not so. The printer simply makes printed copies of whatever is given him, receiving in return a stated compensation. But the publisher buys literary material, puts it into suitable printed form and sees that it is marketed. His work is, therefore, not like the printer's, simply a result of technical operations, but requires a mixture of professional effort and business skill. The publisher's responsibility is a great one; it devolves on him to supply the public with the sort of reading matter which promises to have some real effect upon the development of the people whom it reaches. It is his duty and great privilege, also, to forward artistic advancement by publishing works of artistic value, which will not only directly influence those who read them, but will serve also as an impetus to further artistic creation.

The publisher's work is difficult, for he deals with something which is hard to estimate at its true value, or even at its approximate commercial value. He cannot say, when a book is offered to him for consideration, "This book would make a volume of five hundred pages; therefore it is worth more than a shorter one of only two hundred pages." And he cannot say, "This book is on a topic which has already been treated; therefore it is of no value." There is no arbitrary standard whereby writing as a commodity can be judged. There are hundreds of things which must be considered by the publisher every time a work of any sort is offered to him.

The individual problems of publishers differ according to the particular branch of the work in which they are engaged. The chief divisions of publishing are as follows: general literary and fictional, technical and scientific, medical and periodical and newspaper. The general duties of all publishers, except news-paper, are the same. They select, from the work offered them, that which best meets their needs and the wants of the public, get this out in a suitable form and attend to the selling of it. Publishers also occasionally commission writers to work upon certain designated subjects which are either closely defined, or else left largely to the judgment of the author, according to the individual circumstances of the case.

To be successful, the publisher must be possessed of a taste for literature, combined with business ability. In the field of medical and technical publishing, it is desirable that he have some knowledge of the subjects which are dealt with in the books he publishes. A medical publisher should be somewhat familiar with medicine, in order to judge adequately the value of certain works to students and practitioners. In the case of technical or scientific publishing, little more is necessary than a general surface understanding of the various subjects with which the publisher may come in contact. For newspaper and magazine publishing, a knowledge of news values is required, and for fiction and general literary publishing, a background of general literary education is exceedingly useful.

The publisher's first problem is that of selecting the proper material for publication. In the technical line, this is often not so difficult, since one definite group is appealed to, and only its special and usually well-defined interests and needs are to be considered. But in the field of fiction, the matter of choosing the proper work is more difficult. Every publisher must, of course, be endowed with common sense and judgment, and he must also have the ability to realize when another person's judgment is better than his own. If the publisher has a good understanding of popular psychology, if he keeps abreast of the times and is something of a literary critic, he will probably choose the right thing often.

The publisher must attempt to probe the mind of the public, to consider to what class and number of the public the manuscript under consideration would appeal, how it measures up to similar works, what the reputation of the author means and whether, according to his own experience and that of others, there is a likelihood of the book's succeeding. Shrewdness, judgment, a knowledge of human nature, far sightedness, caution and yet something of the gambler's willingness to take a chance are all qualities which should be possessed by the publisher.

When he has decided to accept a manuscript, the technical work of getting it out in proper shape will next occupy his attention. The publisher considers books not only with regard to their contents, but also in the extremely tangible sense of printed pages bound together and appropriately covered. To him the dress in which the book appears is of considerable importance. In order that he may know how to produce beautiful and durable books at a minimum of expense, it is necessary that he have some practical knowledge of typography and bookbinding. He must consider the quality and size of the paper to be used, the kind of print and the material and style of binding. And he must always consider not only the final appearance of the book, but also the ultimate profit which he hopes to make from it. For this reason a practical working knowledge of the actual making of books is desirable, for it enables the publisher to regulate his expenses.

It is next the publisher's work to sell the finished book. Selling books is not easy. They are not necessities like food or clothes, and comparatively few people buy them. There is, of course, always a steady demand for newspapers, but even this is a limited one, for few people buy many papers in the course of one day. There is always a rather steady demand for the cheaper weekly and monthly magazines, but these periodicals would hardly be a profitable venture, were it not for the large amount of advertising matter they carry. There is a steady but not very active market for standard works, but a market or buying public for new works of fictional or general interest must first be created or stimulated by the publisher.

The business of creating a market requires, on the publisher's part, a thorough understanding of the principles of salesman-ship, and as thorough a knowledge of popular psychology as possible. The publisher of new books depends to a great extent upon advertising to bring him buyers. In order to advertise books successfully, the publisher must, in a certain sense, feel the pulse of public interest. He must know what it is that the public, or that particular portion of it which he is trying to reach, is interested in; he must know what qualities of the particular book will appeal to or satisfy that interest. He must know, also, the literary styles and fads of the moment, the type of work which is likely to succeed at the time, the authors whose names have a commercial value, and should be able to estimate fairly well the general extent of interest and consequent demand which the book will arouse. This cannot, of course, always be estimated. It is just this point which is so often a matter of chance. Sometimes it may seem to a publisher that, according to all experience, and according to all indications, a certain book should sell heavily. And this very book may prove a drug on the market. This condition must be accepted—absolute certainty of success can never be guaranteed, but it is reasonable to suppose that the man with the qualifications and abilities mentioned will have considerable success in judging the subject matter of books and in estimating their commercial value correctly.

Education is of great value to a publisher. Men with little or no schooling have succeeded as publishers, but these men were usually students by nature if not by training. A college education will equip the prospective publisher with a general cultural background which will give him a certain balance and critical knowledge of literature as a whole. For the publisher of technical works, some education along a special technical line is likely to be of great value. For the newspaper and magazine publisher, a preliminary study of journalism and work as a reporter or editor is not bad preparation. The more a publisher knows about the particular field in which he expects to be engaged, the more chance of success is his. There are no school courses in publishing as such. Some men graduate from college and enter a publishing house in a subordinate position, working themselves up by means of energy, initiative, the ability to "pick a winner" or by organizing a successful sales campaign. Others take a preliminary course in the printer's shop; they learn the business from the technical end, and then set up as publishers.

The school of experience is the best in which to learn the publishing business. Education is a great help, but it alone will never assure success. Sound common sense, great energy, both physical and mental, discrimination, far sightedness and honesty are essential qualities without which no one can hope to win success as a publisher. The need of absolute integrity and whole hearted sincerity cannot be overemphasized. The publisher must be honest in all his dealings with author and public. He is entrusted by the writer with work whose value is usually uncertain. He will have a pretty shrewd idea of its commercial worth, and must be honest enough to make terms with the author which will be fair to both. In backing and advertising a book, also, sincerity of purpose is essential. Unless the publisher himself has a certain amount of faith in the work, and really considers it worth while, his advertising will carry a false note and, worse than that, he will be deceiving the public into buying something of doubtful value.

Publishing offers to the right sort of man a fascinating career. The person who enters this field must have a real love for books, must be willing to put a vast amount of energy into his work and to consider many other things besides profit. It is impossible to predict the financial returns which publishing may make to the ambitious worker. Some men have made almost nothing, and others have amassed fortunes and built up fine reputations at the same time. But the other advantages which may be expected from following publishing as a profession may in most cases be foretold. The publisher, through the very nature of his work, comes in contact with all the finest thought and experience of his time and of times past. He has much opportunity also to form acquaintances and friendships with interesting men and women, many of whom are the great personalities of his time, to discover hitherto unknown talent and to promote art and knowledge.

Often he will be disappointed in the response to some book in which he has had great faith; sometimes, too, he will even be discouraged. And he may be tempted to forget that he must consider profit as well as other things, and so put upon the market some book whose qualities of beauty and artistry may especially appeal to him, and which may yet not have the attributes to make it a salable commodity. But the temptations and disappointments and even occasional discouragements of the publisher will not prevent the man of energetic personality from keeping on at his work. He will realize that all these things are part of the game, and that they even contribute to its charm.


DE VINNE, T. L.: "Modern Methods of Book Composition," Oswald Publishing Co., New York, 1914.

ELLSWORTH, WILLIAMWEBSTER: "A Golden Age of Authors: A Publisher's Recollection," Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York, 1919.

LIPPINCOTT, J. BERTRAM: "Book Publishing," Publications of the American Academy of Political and Social Science No. 501, The American Academy of Political and Social Science, Philadelphia, 1906.

PUTNAM, GEORGE HAVEN: "Memories of a Publisher," G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1915.

SEITZ, Dow CARLOS: "Training for the Newspaper Trade," J. B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, 1916.

YARD, ROBERT STERLING: "The Publisher," Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York, 1913.


American Newspaper Annual and Directory, N. W. Ayer & Son, Philadelphia.

Inland Printer, Inland Printer Co., Inc., Chicago.

Publishers' Weekly, R. R. Bowker Co., New York.

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