Ok errybody, question for the assembled: Your job is to start a new publishing company tomorrow. You have only $100,000. What do?
Here are four theses about book publishing as a business:
1. A publisher is a bank that owns an ad agency and a trucking company.
2. The bank's job is to acquire books whose aggregate income will cover expenses.
3. The ad agency's job is to increase sales by more than marketing costs.
4. The trucking company's job is to distribute the product cheaply and effectively.
This is an admittedly blunt characterization of a business that prefers to describe itself in more elevated terms, but I think it captures the basics.
There is of course nothing there about Gordon Lish editing Raymond Carver or wevs, but that's because editing turns out to be optional. Publishing Cos are increasingly buying rights to books originally popularized elsewhere, as with "Wool" or 50 shades of Grey".
Sometimes the manuscript gets edited and sometimes not, but there's always a contract, and marketing, and fulfillment: A publisher is a bank that owns an ad agency and a trucking company. (Add 'and a beauty parlor' if your company will have Gordon Lish on staff.)
If you buy that assessment, the key question for publishing now is "Are there ways of acquiring, publicizing, and delivering books that are both new and effective?"
Put that way, the answer is not just "Yes" but "Duh." This suggests that a publisher that started out today would be organized very differently from the way the olds do it, and, if you squint, it suggests that now might be a good time to do just that.
So here's the question: Imagine you want to start a new publishing organization tomorrow, you have only $100,000 to start with, and your only commercial requirement is the Dikensian one -- "Annual income 20£, annual expenditure 19£6s, result happiness. Annual income 20£, annual expenditure 20£0s6d, result misery." All you need to do is avoid misery at the end of each year. What do you do?
There are some obvious things you don't do. You don't pay your CEO enough to summer in East Hampton. You don't take the current printer/warehouse/retail model of the business for granted. You drop the consignment model because Jesus Christ is it really the second decade of the 21st century and people are returning boxes of books?
You don't assume purchase is better than rental, or that rental is better than subscription. (Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, but it's horses for courses.) You don't take the current division of labor between authors and editors and publishers and marketers and wholesalers and retailers and consumers for granted either.
You don't take anything for granted, really, except that a) income needs to be incoming and b) after expenses are removed from that income, there's enough in the till for the next go-round.
How do you do it?