What Is a Publisher?
Don't confuse printing with publishing. Printing is simply the manufacture of multiple copies, and it will be discussed in a later section. You can print your work yourself, but economical and aesthetically pleasing printing can best be done by equipment too expensive for most individuals to own and too complex for most of us to use. You can publish your own work, too, simply by making it available to the public in any form. Self-publication and home printing are ancient and honorable means for poets to reach readers. Robert Frost's first book was a single poem in an edition limited to two copies, one of which he gave to his girl friend. Walt Whitman not only set type for Leaves of Grass but wrote (anonymously) many of its reviews. Through most of the history of literature the relation between poet and public was much more direct than it conventionally is today – probably to the benefit of literature.
A printer manufacturers books. A bookseller buys these and markets them for a profit. But in between, in modern practice, there is likely to be a publisher. Some publishers, for economic reasons, have their own printing operations, but theirs is quite a different function, and many farm out some or all of their printing.
A publisher is essentially a broker. You want your work printed, but perhaps you do not want to pay the printing bill. If the publisher sees it to his advantage, he may agree to pay the printing bill in exchange for exclusive control of your copyright. Just as manufacturers buy a lot more patents than they ever use, partly to keep competitors from using them, publishers contract for a lot more books than they expect to sell. My father was an oil royalty broker. He bought and sold mineral rights of farms which had not been drilled and, in many cases, on which no one had any intention of drilling. Should oil happen to be struck anywhere in the area, it was a great advantage to have the mineral rights sewed up. Similarly, publishers contract for and bring out nominal editions of many books which they never advertise or make any serious attempt to distribute to booksellers. They are sitting on the copyrights – just in case. Should there suddenly, for some reason, be a surge of interest in an author, the publisher is in a position to make a profit. That need happen with only a few books each year to make the business profitable – and to pay for dozens of books that never made it out of the warehouse.
The usual book contract, in exchange for exclusive rights, provides the author with an advance (very small in the case of poetry). It promises that the book will be published by a certain date, but usually does not specify the number of copies that will be printed. (A thousand copies is a fairly normal edition of a book of poetry.) The author usually is promised ten free copies, may buy more at a 40% discount, and will receive 10% of the sale price after the advance has been paid off. (I.e., if the advance was $500, and the book sells for $5, the poet begins receiving royalties after a thousand copies are sold. Since that many copies of a book of poetry are rarely sold, the poet is likely never to collect more than his advance.) In most cases, the poet gets his advance and his ten author's copies, and maybe a few reviews – and that's it for that book of poems. I bought a hundred copies of my first book to give away, which probably accounted for most of its distribution, until I bought up all the remaining copies, kept them in my attic, and began selling them myself.
One might think that if a publisher went to the expense of paying to have a book published he would try to sell it, but, in practice, the efforts of most publishers to market books are nominal at best. Almost none are advertised. As one of my publishers explained, a publisher doesn't advertise to see whether a book will sell. That would be bad business. He advertises books he knows will sell. He advertises after sales potential has been demonstrated. (If all the tens of thousands of books published in the United States each year were advertised, the media would be flooded with nothing but book advertisements. Besides, few people buy books on the basis of ads. Or on the basis of reviews.)
Why people buy books and which ones they will buy is a mystery to which the publishers haven't a clue. Some best sellers (not poetry, you may be sure) are created by concentrated publicity campaigns, but that accounts for a very small proportion of the book business. For the most part publishers seem to sit back and wait for orders, like a fisherman with several hundred lines in the lake. They seem not even to know where books are sold. An author doing a piece on ski resorts had recently had a book published. He wrote me:
I told my publisher I would be all over the place in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. His secretary wrote back to tell me that my promotional efforts were appreciated, but there were no book stores in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. There are two book stores in every major ski resort in the U.S., but publishers don't know it. Those book stores get a lot of traffic, mostly from bored wives who don't want to ski all the time like their husbands do.)
If you think salesmen from major publishers hover around the stores where books move – in airports, train stations, hospitals, even natural food stores near college campuses – you are mistaken. Some do have salesmen in the field stopping at some of the larger bookstores, but the salesmen have hundreds of books on their lists and cannot push them all, and may even pointedly neglect books they don't happen to like personally.
In short, the marketing of books (other than textbooks – for which publishers make very serious sales efforts) is a chaos into which publishers seem rarely to venture. Of all writes, poets have the lease to expect from publishers. They carry a few poets on their lists to enhance their image – the illusion that they are interested in literature rather than profit. Increasingly today the big publishers are but subdivisions of corporate conglomerates with no more interest in literature than detergent manufacturers have in public health. We may read with misty eyes today how Henry Holt & Co. helped Robert Frost establish himself as a poet in the United States (after, it is true) a small English firm had published his first collection), but it would be a mistake to dream that it would happen that way today.
[Judson, I feel, left some questions unanswered in this chapter. If book publishers do not market their books, then how do book stores know which books to stock? I suspect that the answer can be found in that pervasive middle-man, the distributor. I am going to speak to some local booksellers, but I am confident that they will tell me that they rely upon the advice of book distributors regarding which titles to buy. A distributor would know best which titles are selling well and which books would sell well in which localities. The distributor, in fact, may serve as the salesman for the publisher, especially since some distributors, I believe, are owned by publishers.
Why do we call them "booksellers"? Do we call supermarkets "foodsellers"?]