Colin Robinson was laid off from his job as senior editor at Scribner's on publishing's Black Wednesday. He gives his perspective on this dark day and the problems with publishing, in the US and in his native England, here in a long article in the London Review of Books. He covers a lot of ground and covers it very well. Robinson has been in publishing for many years, working for 20 years I believe at Verso and also working at the New Press.
He opens and closes the long piece with his personal experience, demonstrating his skill as an editor in his role as a writer. He then pulls back to talk about Black Wednesday and the refusal of his British colleagues to acknowledge the problem coming their way. He then identifies "the problems that led to this state of affairs."
For one, he breaks down where the money goes:
Publishers now regularly give bookshops a 50 per cent or even a 55 per cent discount on the retail price. The distributor that warehouses and delivers the book will typically take 10 per cent of what remains, or more if you are a small publisher; 15 per cent goes on production (printing, paper, typesetting). Add another 10 per cent for the author’s royalties and the publisher is left with 10 per cent to cover promotion costs, rent and office expenses, wages – and profit.
This is a useful way to explain who gets what, and to show how badly the decks are stacked against smaller presses, unless they negotiate contracts with more advantageous terms. It does not mean they are screwing the author, but are instead trying to create a structure that will keep them in business.
Robinson then explains the co-op business in chain bookstores, which is always odd to see in black and white but is useful for reminding people or opening eyes to this odd system. His run-down of how we've ended up with this ass-backwards system of returns is worth reprinting here:
This arrangement, of enormous advantage to the retailer, is unique to the book publishing industry. It was introduced in the United States in the 1920s, when Simon and Schuster, in an effort to get ahead of its competitors, offered to take back unsold copies of its crossword books. Soon everyone adopted the system. Today returns are ubiquitous and running at higher levels than ever before. In the US, they represent nearly 40 per cent of all new hardbacks shipped. The practice is open to abuse: publishers regularly complain that bookstores are returning books and then reordering them in order to extend their credit periods, a practice that can only become more common now that finance is no longer available from banks.
That's how it happened! This system needs to be revisited STAT.
So I'm very sorry for Robinson's loss, but I'm thankful for this article - a cold comfort, I know.