Publishing in Boston: Tracts to Textbooks
Editors Find Varied Tasks Require More Than a Desk and Telephone
When John Harvard left his three hundred-volume library to establish the first college in America, he founded a community of sometime scholars who have probably purchased more books per capita than any other similar group in the western hemisphere.
Most of Harvard's original books were bought from English bookstalls, and most of them were printed in Latin and Greek. But for native New Englanders, Boston's Cornhill soon took over the functions of London's Charring Cross Road. Before the end of the seventeenth century a flourishing, if small publishing industry had developed here.
By today's yardstick, this colonial industry was little more than a group of independent printers. Under rigid governmental censorship, Boston's books were either reprints of classical treatises or pious puritanical sermons. The colonial reader sought moral edification rather than information or casual entertainment.
Today, Boston's seven publishing houses--Little, Brown; Houghton Mifflin; Ginn; Beacon Press; D. C. Heath; Atlantic Monthly Books; and Allyn and Bacon--bear little resemblance to their ancestral forebears. The monotype and the large commercial enterprise have supplanted moveable type and the hand craftsman. Where once a printer set every individual letter, made a separate impression for each page, and bound them all under a fine leather cover, now machines handle almost every phase of the printing process.
Three centuries of industrial progress have wrought equally great changes in the outlook of Boston's publishing houses. Publishing has become a function of the business community where it was an arm of the church. Despite this evolution, its original seriousness of purpose reappears in modern guise. Book publishing began in Boston as an expression of this curiosity, but spiraling production costs have since forced the editor to tailor his product to financial considerations. Seldom will he issue what he knows will lose money; he would prefer to throw his resources behind a book with one virtue--that people will buy it.
On the average, a publisher of hard-cover books must sell at least 10,000 copies before he can recoup his investment. But he is faced with problems of distribution which often keep him from reaching this break-even point. The result for the industry is two-fold: first, that the editor must be both critic and businessman; second, that the publisher must constantly seek diversity--new sources of income to compensate for losses.
"Publishing, like banking," according to one Boston editor, "requires nothing more than a desk and a telephone. The printer will take care of the rest of the job." But thousands of manuscripts may cross his desk each year. The editor must have a working knowledge of a wide range of fields--from the kitchen or the horse-show to details of life in Paris or Calcutta. He must be able to help the author with suggestions. And more important, from his company's point of view, he must constantly seek new talent and encourage established writers. "An editor who doesn't find writers and manuscripts," one publisher commented, "is not an editor, but just a reader."
In spite of his identification with serious literature, therefore, the "trade publisher" is primarily concerned with financial profit. Yet certainly not all authors write with sales in mind, and their ideas do not have to be popular to reach print. As George A. Hall '47, of Little, Brown, put it, "There are many books today, like those of Alan Paton, that deal with unpleasant subjects. Ordinarily an unpleasant book is a hard book to sell, but if it is beautifully written, there is no reason why it should not be as successful as a piece of sheer entertainment."
But one small though significant Boston firm, the Beacon Press, frequently sets out "to take a beating" on a book which "deserves to be published," in the words of its editor Melvin Arnold. Sponsored by the American Unitarian Association, the house publishes no more than 20 cloth-bound books a year. But its influence far outweighs its size. "Specializing in public controversy," according to Arnold, the Beacon Press was founded in the nineteenth century to publish sermons, and it still prints "books that we feel should be published." Among the better known of its recent polemics were Paul Blanshard's attack on Catholic power and a large volume of anti-McCarthy literature.
Nonetheless, the Beacon Press is also expected by its sponsors to be self-supporting. Within the past six months, Arnold has launched a series of paperbacks to compensate for losses on his "public service" books.
Such inexpensive pocket books have made and lost huge sums for the book industry. Cheaply printed and available in large quantities, the paperback may well be the solution to the problem of rising publishing and distributing costs. But paperbacks must be printed and sold in great numbers to be profitable, and unforseen distribution difficulties have already destroyed the plans of more than one publisher.
Less expensive than hard-covers, paperbacks have cut into the volume of sales of first editions, but old-line publishers have used royalties from reprint rights as a source of new income. With no new investment, out-of-print books have yielded "found money" to the hardcover publisher. But not all paperbacks are reprints. Under a joint agreement, Houghton-Mifflin and Ballantine Books simultaneously release new books in both hard and soft covers.
Royalties have also tumbled in from other sources, including the book club, the booming new entertainment trend in publishing. Individual companies have also formed their own clubs to distribute cheaper, second-run editions of their own books. Little, Brown from behind its sleepy, genteel front on Beacon Street uses this production technique to keep its accounts balanced.
Little, Brown is perhaps Boston's best example of a publisher seeking diversity. Besides editing general trade books, the firm prints juvenile books to reach the large number of children in the nations schools. Its law and medical texts have been consistent moneymakers, and the company has taken on the production and distribution functions of two of its sister publishing houses.
At 2 Park Street, around the corner from Little, Brown are the editorial offices of Houghton-Mifflin, whose trade division is headed by Paul Brooks '31. H. M. started as a book-store over a hundred years ago, joined with a printer, and, under a succession of names, has come down to the present as one of the most stable and respected publishers in the nation.
Part of this success has no doubt been due to the large scope of its textbook department. In addition, H. M. is the only Boston firm to own its own printing agency, the Riverside Press. Located on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, Riverside prints all of Houghton's books as well as a large number of books coming from other editorial desks. Lower on Beacon Hill and closer to the center of Boston than Little Brown, Houghton-Mifflin exudes a more worldly atmosphere than its consciously dignified rival.
The physical surroundings as well as the atmosphere of publishing change as one skirts the Common and walks to Ginn and Company in Park Square. Occupying almost a whole floor in one of the city's largest office buildings, Ginn is more a strictly commercial enterprise than its trade sisters. Consequently, it is better off financially. It publishes purely educational material, the bulk of which is directed toward elementary and secondary schools.
Since the primary emphasis of the grammar school text is to present expository material, much of which is totally unfamiliar to the student, textbook publishing demands a highly precise and clear style. It is the patient grinding of an educational tool. The material covered, too, must be such that it will fill a school's requirements in a determined amount of time. The process of preparing a text becomes a long one, often requiring the work of several years by one or more trained authors.
Having produced a work of craftsmanship, the educational publisher becomes a powerful force in moulding outlook of a child. One series of books prepared by Ginn, D. C. Heath, or the somewhat smaller Allyn and Bacon can follow a child through as many as nine years of his education.
The trade publisher, the text book house, and the polemical press are all located in Boston. Their operations are on a small scale compared with the publishing activities of New York firms, but the influence, and often the quality, of their product is high.
People sometimes wonder why a publisher would want to be located in a city like Boston, notorious for its well-publicized censorship and stuffy morality. One editor summed up his answer by saying that in Boston he can take a long and objective view of the manuscript before him. "Away from the insularity of New York," he said, "the proximity to Madison Avenue's advertising agencies, and the 'faddishness' of the Big City, I can examine more carefully the ideas of an author. I can shut out the irrelavant and concentrate on what I am reading."