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Publishing is the activity of putting information into the public arena. Traditionally, the term refers to the distribution of printed works such as books and newspapers. With the advent of digital information systems and the Internet, the scope of publishing has expanded to include websites, blogs, and other forms of new media. As a business, publishing includes the development, marketing, production, and distribution of news and non-fiction magazines and books, literary works, musical works, software, and so on.

This article is concerned with the production of books, magazines, and other literary material (whether in printed or electronic formats). The publication of software is covered in software publishing. Publication is also important as a legal concept; (1) as the process of giving formal notice to the world of a significant intention, for example, to marry or enter bankruptcy, and; (2) as the essential precondition of being able to claim defamation; that is, the alleged libel must have been published.


Process of publishing

A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan
A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan

A modern book or periodical publishing company (or publisher) is the gateway through which authors must pass to see their work in print (whether hard copy or electronic).


  • Author/agent submission Publishers spend a significant proportion of their time buying or commissioning content. At a small press, it is possible to survive by relying entirely on commissioned material but, as activity increases, the need for content may outstrip the publisher's established circle of authors, so the door is open for others to submit material for consideration. The majority of unsolicited submissions come from previously unpublished authors. Such manuscripts must go through the slush pile, which acquisitions editors sift through to identify manuscripts of sufficient quality or revenue potential to be referred to the editorial staff. Authors who are represented by a literary agent are more likely to succeed with major publishers. Publishers thrive only when they are able to produce and sell books that match the needs of the target readers.
  • Acceptance/negotiation Once a work is accepted, the commissioning editors negotiate the purchase of intellectual property (IP) rights and agree royalty rates.
    • The authors of traditional printed materials sell exclusive territorial IP rights that match the list of states in which distribution is proposed (i.e. the rights match the legal systems under which copyright protections can be enforced). In the case of books, the publisher must also agree on the intended formats of publication — mass market paperback, trade paperback and hardback are the most common options.
    • The situation is slightly more complex if electronic formatting is to be used. Where distribution is to be by CD-R or other physical media, there is no reason to treat this form differently from a hard-copy format and a territorial copyright is an acceptable approach. But the possibility of internet download without the ability to restrict physical distribution within national boundaries presents legal problems that are usually solved by selling language/translation rights rather than territorial rights. Thus, internet access across the European Union is relatively open because of the laws forbidding discrimination based on nationality, but the fact of publication in, say, French, limits the target market to those who read French.
    • Having agreed on the scope of the publication and the formats, the parties must then agree royalty rates, i.e. the percentage of the gross retail price that will be paid to the author. This is a difficult risk management exercise because the publisher must estimate the potential sales in each market and balance projected revenue against production costs.
  • Editorial stage Once the immediate commercial decisions are taken and the technical legal issues resolved, the author may be asked to improve the quality of the work through rewrite(s) or the in-house staff will edit the work. Almost all publishers operate a house style, and staff will copy edit to ensure that the work matches the style and grammatical requirements of each market.
  • Pre-press When a final text is agreed, the next phases are design (i.e. artwork is commissioned, layout is confirmed, etc.) and preparing the work for printing (i.e. typesetting, dust jacket composition, specification of paper quality, binding method and casing, and proofreading). The activities of typesetting, page layout, the production of negatives, plates from the negatives and, for hardbacks, the preparation of brasses for the spine legend and imprint are now all computerised. The final act before sending the work to the printer is to output the PostScript files. If the target is electronic distribution, the final files are saved as PDF files or other formats appropriate to the target operating systems of the hardware used for reading.


The publisher usually controls the advertising and other marketing tasks, but may subcontract various aspects of the process described above. In smaller companies, editing, proof-reading and layout might be done by freelancers. Dedicated in-house sales forces for books are rapidly being replaced by specialised companies who handle sales to bookshops, wholesalers and chain stores for a fee. This trend is accelerating as retail book chains and supermarkets have centralised their buying. If the entire process up to the stage of printing is handled by an outside company or individuals, and then sold to the publishing company, it is known as book packaging. This is a common strategy between smaller publishers in different territorial markets where the company that first buys the IP Rights, sells a package to other publishers and gains an immediate return on capital invested. Indeed, the first publisher will often print sufficient copies for all territories and thereby obtain the maximum quantity discounts on the print run for all.

Any company will maximise its profit margin through vertical integration. Although newspaper and magazine companies still often own printing presses and binderies, book publishers rarely do. Similarly, the trade usually sells the finished products through a distributor who stores and distributes the publisher's wares for a percentage fee or sells on a sale or return basis. The advent of the internet has therefore posed an interesting question to the publishers, the distributors and the retailers. In 2005, announced its purchase of Booksurge, a major Print On Demand (P.O.D) operation. This is probably intended as a preliminary move towards establishing an Amazon imprint. One of the largest bookseller chains, Barnes & Noble, already runs its own successful imprint with both new titles and Classics — hardback editions of out-of-print former best sellers. Similarly, Ingram Book Company, the world’s largest book wholesaler, having flirted with Barnes & Noble, now includes its own P.O.D. division called Lighting Source. From the publishers, Simon & Schuster recently announced that it will start selling its backlist titles directly to consumers through its website. Perseus, one of the largest independent publishers, also announced its purchase of Client Distribution Services, a company that distributes titles by independent publishers. Book clubs are almost entirely direct-to-retail, and niche publishers pursue a mixed strategy to sell through all available outlets — their output is insignificant to the major booksellers and so lost business is no threat to the traditional symbiotic relationships between the four activities of printing, publishing, distribution and retail.

Academic publishing

Main article: Academic publishing

The development of the printing press represented a revolution for communicating the latest hypotheses and research results to the academic community and supplemented what a scholar could do personally. Ironically, this improvement in the efficiency of communication created a challenge for libraries which have had to accommodate the weight and volume of literature.

To understand the scale of the problem: about two centuries ago, the number of scientific papers published annually was doubling approximately every fifteen years. Today, the number of published papers doubles about every ten years. Modern academics can now run electronic journals and distribute academic materials without the need for publishers. Not surprisingly, publishers perceive this emancipation as a serious threat to their business model. In reality, the interests of scholars and publishers have long been in conflict. The purpose of copyright is to protect the capital invested in the "work" by the publisher and the wish of the scholar is to have the work as widely distributed as possible.

Today, publishing academic journals and textbooks is a large part of an international industry. The shares of the major publishing companies are listed on national stock exchanges and management policies must satisfy the dividend expectations of international shareholders. Critics claim that these standardised accounting and profit-oriented policies have come to the fore and now constrain more altruistic leanings. An alternative to the corporate model is open access, the online distribution of individual articles and academic journals without charge to readers and libraries.

Tie-in publishing

Technically, radio, television, cinemas, VCDs and DVDs, music systems, games machines, computer hardware and mobile telephony publish information to those who watch and/or listen. Indeed, the marketing of a major film will require a novelisation, a graphic novel or comic version, the soundtrack album, a game, model, toys and endless promotional publications (including SMS messages). Some of the major publishers have entire divisions devoted to a single franchise, e.g. Ballantine Del Rey Lucasbooks has the exclusive rights to Star Wars in the U.S; Random House UK(Bertelsmann)/Century LucasBooks holds the same rights in the UK. The gaming industry self-publishes through BL Publishing/Black Library (Warhammer) and Wizards of the Coast (DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, etc). The BBC has its own publishing division which does very well with long-running series such as Doctor Who. These multi-media works are cross-marketed aggressively and sales frequently outperform the average stand-alone published work making them a focus of corporate interest.

Criticism of the publishing industry

There has been some controversy in recent times over what is perceived as a crisis in Western publishing. The general complaint is that conglomerates or large corporations have bought and merged a significant number of key publishing houses or bookstores. Consequently, an oligopoly is arising and now exercises more real influence over various aspects of publishing. It is suggested that there has been some reduction in competition but there is no reduction in the number of titles published in the national markets. This is not to deny that consolidation has produced a number of consequences:

  • The corporations have concentrated on their big name authors, attempting to drive up the market share of a bestseller.
  • Editorial policy now requires imprints to keep fewer authors under contract — this has resulted in economic insecurity for the midlist authors who previously enjoyed stability of employment;
  • Companies now wish to extend the payment schedule for the payment of author royalties — in part this is a response to the demands of the retail trade for extended periods of credit, but it also maximises the amount of circulating capital available to the publisher;
  • Critics claim that these events have led to the following problems:
    • Not only a loss of diversity in the range of authors published in mass market outlets, but also to a decline in the quality of a bestseller as most of the middle and lower level authors must have other employment to provide income while writing the work and waiting for the royalties.
    • The consolidation of companies has also made it easier to impose a political bias on the works released by the commercial publishers based in New York.
    • There is an excess of transient in the mass market, a bestseller is often used as promotional tools for a possible movie deal.

Independent publishing alternatives

In spite of the fact that middle and lower level authors now need to keep a day job, they have managed to find smaller alternatives to the mass market in the form of small press such as self-publishing, print on demand, and through the eBook format as well. Even though there is little market exposure in addition to the royalty checks that are few and far between, these publishing alternatives provide an avenue that expresses diversity in styles and political views that the mass markets haven't seen in the last 10-15 years.

Rather than try to write a bestseller, most of these small press authors shoot for the long range goal of writing the Great American Novel.


See also

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