The Oxford Handbook of Publishing

edited by Angus Phillips and Michael Bhaskar (Oxford University Press, 2019), 461pp, £95 (hbk)
ISBN 978 0 19 879420 2

Reviewed by Pauline McGonagle

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This Handbook of Publishing is a timely and unique collection of essays which successfully surveys the current diverse world of publishing. It explains what is different about the ‘variegated entity’/ business or set of industries which make up the publishing world. The long history of publishing and its ability to adapt to technological change have ensured that it has stayed on the cutting edge. This Handbook interrogates, explains and articulates what publishing is, what it does and what it means. It combines the scholarship of theory, current research and thinking, with the experience of industry and professional practice at a critical and exciting time for the industry. This is a time where radical innovation in new media continues to influence intellectual and cultural transformation. There is also a surge of interest and growth in the academic study of publishing within a range of disciplines, from library science, literature, sociology, business, to media and communication.

The book is divided into three main sections and a Coda. The first section covers publishing in context, including publishing history, copyright development, the influence of society, networks and collaboration, changes in reading habits and corporate responsibility. The second section on the dynamics of publishing is made up of the ‘nuts and bolts’; including the drivers of the industry, business strategies, publishers’ curation choices and the common properties of international publishing. This section also has chapters on the ‘visible’ sector of trade publishing, the ‘almost invisible field’ of educational publishing and the transforming area of academic publishing. The third section on practice includes chapters on how publishing houses are structured, on technological changes in book production and book design and on the mechanics of marketing. It also discusses libraries as outlets, the changes in authors’ rights and the retail business of bookselling.

The Coda asks important questions about ‘what if’ and it explores some thought experiments on the future of publishing as a useful way to declutter the various possibilities ahead. These prospects include self-publishing by big name authors (not just J.K. Rowling), books written by AI, books streamed as a service, translation on demand, free e-books versus expensive print, all books sold via the internet and physical books disappearing. Also, my favourite fantasy: a resurgence of analogue, with books being prescribed for health, while libraries are re-opened as governments invest in the benefits of these for the wider economy.

The last option may be wishful thinking, but as Phillips and Bhaskar point out: few would have predicted in the late 1990s that ‘Amazon’s market capitalization would dwarf that of the entire publishing industry’. This book is a serious academic and authoritative work on the industry with a very large scope. Editing as a valued skill within the industry is not part of its remit. Editing is taken for granted under discussion of the changes afoot in the overall transformations within publishing organizational structures. This includes the continuous move towards project-based models, where companies manage risk against cost. This has an impact on those of us who rely on the various aspects of the bigger industry for our work. Overall, this book provides an expansive and compelling source of perspectives across the many disciplines which require our services.

The contributors are an impressive line-up of researchers, academics, librarians and those with considerable experience in editing and publishing from the UK, Europe and the USA. It is a reliable reference book of depth and density rather than a bedside read or a quick guide. Inevitably, I noted the misspelling of Arundhati Roy’s famous London agent in the text and the index, but otherwise it is a thoroughly researched, attractive and significant book.

I consider The Oxford Handbook of Publishing critical for those studying any aspect of the publishing industry formally, as it fully summarises the state of knowledge in the field and gives thorough treatment to the transformational impact of digital publishing and other future options. It is also very useful for those interested in publishing, literature and the business of media, entertainment, culture, communication and information.


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