The January Meeting 2020



Chris Ferguson gave a talk to the Club on 14 January, entitled ‘A Short Introduction to the World of Publishing’.  Chris has a background in non-fiction publishing, having worked for the illustrated book publisher, Thames & Hudson, for over 40 years. Previous to that he worked for a Dutch fine art printer.   Chris mentioned that his brief was a huge challenge given the wide-ranging nature of the subject, coupled with the most extraordinary, seismic, technological changes seen in the printing and publishing industry over his 50 years involvement.


Publishing is a term that covers a variety of end products all underpinned by the industry being at the forefront of innovation in imaging and computer technology, graphics, printing, binding and papermaking technology, a leader in previously unthoughtof methods of communication and the critical importance of developing global reach – for publishing (and its related industries) is a truly global business.


His talk covered six areas:  What is Publishing?, Some Book Publishing Industry statistics in the UK, A brief History of the Book and Publishing, The importance of Printing,  followed by some information on Publishing today and Publishing - a global industry.  


 What is Publishing?


A common definition is the making of information available to the public at large. The list is almost endless and includes such diverse topics as:


The conduit for all this information on such an eclectic range of topics, under the umbrella of publishing includes


For example, in recent years book-based productions generated 44% of UK film box office revenues, 58% of high-end TV and over 30% of theatre revenues.  Some of the most successful stage productions – The Mousetrap, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, War Horse and The Woman in Black are all book based.


Published matter falls into two main categories – periodical and non-periodical.   Of non-periodical publications, books constitute by far the largest class; they are also, in one form or another, the oldest of all types of publication and go back to the earliest civilizations.  Books can be said to be a countries main cultural storehouse. Conquerors wishing to destroy a people’s heritage have often burned its books, as in China, the Spaniards in Mexico in 1520, and the Nazis in the 1930s.


Some Book Publishing Industry statistics in the UK 


        In 2018 UK publishing revenues overall for Books, Journals and Co-editions was £6 billion

        Publishing directly employed around 29,000 jobs plus more than 70,000 jobs in support industries

        The UK is the largest exporter of physical and digital books in the world which accounts for some 59% of revenues at £3.5 billion

        191 million books were sold in the UK in 2018, the top title by revenue was ‘Becoming’ memoires of Michelle Obama but by quantity ‘This is going to Hurt’ by Adam Kay

        Between 2014 and 2018 revenue from e-books fell by one fifth, whilst audiobooks downloads have trebled

        The total number of bookshop outlets, chains and independents, numbered 4729 in 2016 of which independent booksellers numbered 867. The number of independent UK bookshops has steadily fallen in recent years from 1,878 in 1995, but in the last two years there has been a modest rise to approximately 880 shops.

        There is less than 1% chance of a title being stocked by a bookshop

        Publishing is an industry that celebrates diversity and inclusion


A brief History of the Book and Publishing

There is much debate as to what can be considered the oldest book, contenders include, but not limited to: The Diamond Sutra (a Buddhist holy text) is considered to be the world's oldest surviving dated printed book. Wood block printed it was 'made' in around AD 868. So over 1,100 years ago. The Siddur, a recently discovered Jewish Prayer Book also thought to be over 1,100 years old.  The Book of Kells, which is often cited as the oldest illuminated manuscript also completed in around 800 AD. 

 Bookmaking has a long and fascinating history, and may be characterized, by the close interplay of technical innovation and social change each promoting the other. Bookmaking today depends on three major inventions – writing, paper-making and printing, plus a crucial social development, the spread of literacy.


The importance of printing

The invention of printing cannot be underestimated for it transformed the possibilities of the written word.    Printing was probably first invented in China in the 6th century in the form of block printing.    The introduction of printing to Europe is usually attributed to Johannes Gutenberg in Germany about 1440–50.   Critically Gutenberg’s achievement was a whole new craft involving movable type, ink, paper and a printing press.    Gutenberg’s first book, a Latin Bible, is generally referred to today as the Gutenberg Bible.

Up to that point in time Bibles and other key documents were produced by hand by scribes often taking years to create and subsequently copy and critically were impossibly expensive.   Gutenberg’s first mechanical book was nowhere as expensive as a hand-written copy but at around 30 florins, was at the time still about 3 years’ average wage.

In less than 50 years Gutenberg’s invention had been carried through most of Europe, largely by other German printers.  In the UK, William Caxton was the first to introduce the printing press around 1475/76. One of the first major books he printed, in 1477, was Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Publishing today

Publishing can be compared to the Fashion industry – it never stands still! 

Exactly as in fashion, publishers work on two seasons per year – the so-called Spring and Autumn ‘collections’. Unlike fashion however publishing stands alone as no other industry has so many new product introductions.

Almost every day, year in year out, a new book is started, the ‘work’ needs to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named (book title and jacket/cover design have to hit the spot!), manufactured, packaged, priced, launched, marketed, warehoused, and sold. And the publisher’s rights to its intellectual property and copyright protected.


Underlying a good publishing house is team work  - it is critical – a book comes together by employing the skills of editors, designers, picture researchers, production specialists, sales (Home and International), foreign rights, marketing, legal, distribution and the all-important royalties department – backed up by more familiar disciplines such as HR, Finance and the ever important IT guys.

The publishers commissioning team identifies material that it is felt should be made available to all. That ‘material, might be via an unsolicited submission from a member of the public at large – a potential author, or work instigated by the publisher, who recognises a gap in the market and goes out to find an appropriate author or by buying the rights to publish in English in the publishers’ territory, from another publisher.

Working with the author, the publisher undertakes the checking and editing of the text; the design of the pages, including typeface and type size, collects illustration material as appropriate and arranges for all the components to come together in an accessible format.  The publisher controls the overall production and printing, papermaking, binding, shipping and distribution in conjunction with printers, binders, papermakers, and distributors across the world.

The final ‘work’ is delivered to bricks and mortar booksellers, on line retailers – or a potential purchaser may make a purchase via the publisher’s website in hardcopy or electronic format.  Throughout all this activity and considerable upfront investment, in time and money, the publisher bears all the financial risk.  Some publications may be several years in the making before becoming available and it may take several years to recoup the investment after publication!  Especially if the public are not as interested in the subject as the publisher had predicted!

Publishing – a global industry   

A key aspect of the publisher’s role is to sell the ‘work’ not just in the UK in English, but to distribute the physical book globally in English or by selling the translation rights to foreign publishers. A foreign publisher will buy rights to publish so that translated editions are made available in their local market.  The reverse is true - a UK publisher might buy English language rights from a foreign publisher – where the UK based publisher will undertake translation of the text into English.

Book Publishing is a truly international business.    A book  needs a global audience to be cost effective.   For example ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama  has been Licenced in 45 countries and to date has sold over 11.5 million copies across the globe.

 At question time and in answer to David Richardson, Chris replied that authors will know which illustrations are important to illustrate the point they wish to make. Together with the publisher’s picture research department the relevant illustration will be procured from the owner of the illustration who will grant the rights for its use, in either one, or several territories and for one printing and for future reprints. A fee for the use will be negotiated and confirmed in a contract.    The size of illustrations and their juxtaposition to the relevant text will be agreed between the author, editor and designer.


   To John Demont, Chris replied that publishers have a list of reliable translators, each one being a specialist in his or her field, since the translator must have an excellent understanding of the subject to be translated.  Also with massive advances in technology checking the quality of images and text for the final print run now only takes minutes per printing sheet, compared to several hours in the past. 


To David Field, Chris replied that all colour illustrated books are generally printed in four colours (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and Black). Publishers regularly check to ensure that works that are in copyright are not pirated or plagiarised.    To Malcolm Eady, Chris replied that there are some advantages other than just reduced prices on Amazon, as a wider range of books can be found and buyers are often given recommendations based on previous buying patterns.    Some publishers do not offer discounts on their websites so as not to undercut and put at risk independent booksellers. 


  Chris agreed with Rodney Murray Jones that there are now slightly more book shops although just how many is difficult to gauge.  Publishers sometimes spend three to five years developing a book and the up-front financial outlay is huge but there is no way of knowing whether any particular book will sell through or be returned by the bookseller.  To David Sagar, Chris replied that sometimes copyright issues are difficult to enforce in some countries overseas, particularly in the East. 


John Turner, when thanking Chris for his detailed and fascinating talk about the world of publishing, referred to the level of interest shown by the Club members, whose questions reflected that interest and their appreciation of his talk.  


Chris Ferguson


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