Sound facts and flimsy covers

International Book Publishing

March 8, 1996

There are two basic faults with this encyclopedia. The minor one is that it is poorly bound. There is no excuse for flimsy binding of a book that is 736 pages long and intended to be consulted frequently over a long period. The major fault derives from the use of the word encyclopedia in the title. Normally an encyclopedia is in alphabetical order; otherwise looking things up becomes difficult. In this case it is made worse by a somewhat arbitrary choice of subjects. The first 363 pages are devoted to "Topics in publishing"; the remainder to "Regions and countries".

The countries, however, seem curiously chosen. So we have the United States and Canada, France, Germany and Russia, but little or nothing about Spain or Italy. While the whole of South America is represented by Argentina and Brazil.

Equally puzzling, on page 71 we have "The economics of book publishing in developing countries", while on page 8 we have "Publishing in the Third World". Since they are by two different authors, there are differences between them, but basically they cover the same subject.

I found plenty of good sense in "The economics of the publishing project" but no mention of the mega advances now being paid to the Jeffery Archers and John Grishams, distorting publishing economics as they do so. Turning to the index, I found "advances" directed me to "royalties". "Royalties" has 23 page references but none of them answered my question.

There are 12 page references to book prizes but these only deal with Africa, Asia, children's books, fine bookmaking and Latin America. There seems to be nothing about book prizes in France, the US, Italy and Britain, no mention of Gouncourt, Pulitzer, Viareggio; and only one passing reference to the Booker. Similarly, while the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals are among the children's book prizes, there is no reference to the Smarties Prize, almost certainly the largest children's book prize in the world.

This is all a great shame precisely because the book is so full of fascinating essays and other pieces of information including excellent bibliographies at the end of each piece. Its use, claimed by the publisher to be for authors, editors, publishers, librarians and scholars, is greatly lessened by its failure to live up to the word encyclopedia in both the senses I have indicated.

That said, many of the individual essays are well worth reading, even though the passage of time inevitably makes some statements out of date. For example, the book tells us that "Reed International significantly repositioned itself in the 1980s to become the largest UK book publisher". But as I write these words all of Reed's consumer group of publishers are up for sale. Sometimes, too, there are minor faults of emphasis or fact. The bookselling revolution in the United Kingdom is credited to Waterstone's, but the real inventor was Charles Hammick with his eponymous chain of bookshops years earlier. I also came away with the impression that Waterstone's sold out to W. H. Smith because of its success. Shortage of capital to carry on was a likelier reason.

In "International donor agencies and book development", Tony Read tells us that: "The World Bank, the largest and most powerful of the international donor agencies, has calculated that the number of education projects with significant book components had increased from 5 per cent of all education projects in 1979, to 65 per cent in 1989, and to over 85 per cent in 1993. In recent years, education investment has also risen sharply - from around 5 per cent of total investment in the late 1980s to a predicted 25 per cent in the mid-1990s. Thus book and book-related investment is one of the most important growth areas in one of the fastest-growing investment sectors in the World Bank."

A little further on he adds: "It is now widely accepted that the provision of basic textbooks in poor countries has more impact on increasing educational standards and is more cost-effective than any comparable investment."

This piece and the complementary "Publishing in the Third World: issues and trends for the 21st century" by Philip Altbach are full of fascinating and useful information but the reader has to make the extra effort to knit the two pieces together and then add a third: "National book development planning".

There are no index entries under "net book agreement'' or "retail price maintenance", a subject of urgent interest in the UK and Europe. Only chance led me to two paragraphs in Amadio A. Arboleda's essay on Japan on retail price maintenance. This still exists in that country (for books, magazines, newspapers and records). Memory told me that there was a similar paragraph about France outlawing then reinstating retail price maintenance but, the subject not being treated as a whole, it took time to find again. At last, in Francois Rouet's piece on France, I found: "The French book market, like its counterparts in most of Europe, must apply authorised prices. Setting the retail price is the responsibility of the publisher."

In short, there is a wealth of information in this encyclopedia which is not quite an encyclopedia. In its 34 essays on topics related to publishers and its 31 pieces on countries or regions it covers the subject in breadth and depth, though the former is not always even-handed. It could have been invaluable; it is still worth having.

Martyn Goff is chairman, the Book Trust, and administrator, the Booker prize for fiction.

International Book Publishing: An Encyclopedia

Editor - Philip G. Altbach and Edith S. Hoshino
ISBN - 0 8153 0786 1
Publisher - Garland
Price - £64.50
Pages - 736

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