60 Book Publishing, John P. Dessauer

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Book Publishing: The Basic Introduction, John P. Dessauer, Continuum, 1996 (c1989), ISBN 0-8264-0621-1, $19.95, 260pp.

To coincide with my career change, I decided it was time to understand a little bit more about the mechanics of my favorite industry. Dessauer is a former Director of the Center of Book Publishing at the University of Scranton, as well as a past contributing editor to Publishers Weekly, and this volume is likely the beginning textbook for anyone who wants to make publishing a career. After a summary history of the evolution of publishing, Dessauer delves right into the meat of the subject (to mangle a metaphor), covering how books are created, how they are manufactured, and how they are sold. Creation, although most wannabes and some authors think begins and ends with their personal word processor, was an intriguing chapter, as it covers the acquisition process for both a major house and an independent publisher, as well as bringing in the artwork, how the book is “set,” and designed. The marketing of books, presented here in a coldly clinical light, when we all know that the truth is darkened sanctums filled with black-hooded figures mumbling over bubbling cauldrons, provides some humorous moments where Dessauer discusses how publishing lines have tiers of publications and marketeers with rarely a clue about their product. Although long a whipping post for authors and editors alike, one can feel somewhat sorry for the poor marketing folk, who graduated college where their education how to do with the positioning of a new cereal by Post or a sneaker by Reebox. They try so hard to treat a book as a similar commodity, and are constantly dumbfounded by the illogical market. (That’s not to say that all marketers are this clueless, as I know some sales agents who actually do read–I also know how they have to separate their personal tastes from their sales lists as well. As you go from large publisher to smaller publisher, and the roles of editor and sales agent converge, this lessens.)

But the most interesting part for me, and I think a section worthy of the attention of any serious reader, is the section on the manufacturing of books. From picking the type of paper, to the details of binding and printing, there is a lot more that goes on in the making of a book that was previously dreamed of in my philosophy. I finally understood the distinction between a hardcover and a trade paperback (both of them are printed from the same plates; the only difference is that one is put between hard boards and the other gets a paper cover), as opposed to the mass market paperback (which requires a separate set of printing plates from the hardcover edition). After reading this section, I look at a book quite differently–admiring the amount of labor and ingenuity that went into the object itself, quite beyond the words it contains.

Book Publishing is a little dry at times. Dessauer was once principal author of Book Industry Trends, and sometimes floats by a bunch of tables filled with numbers and doesn’t go into much discussion about them. For research purposes, these facts are wonderful, but numbers are rarely equal to words when trying to learn something. All in all, I found this an invaluable book to have read, and plan to keep it for a little while as a reference work.

[Finished April 1998]

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