For some months now there has been a row going on in UK publishing. It is not a row that has been conducted in public, but occasionally little snippets of information have drifted to the surface.
Basically, what has happened is this. WH Smith, which is certainly one of the UK's top two or three booksellers, has been unhappy with the supply of books from publishers and their distributors. Sales, it seems, have been lost because supplies of hot sellers have not been available as and when needed. So WHS decided to teach publishers a lesson which would force them to improve matters. WHS instituted, apparently, a system of fines for the late delivery of books ordered.
In other words, this a fairly typical trade dispute. We have two parties kicking lumps off each other in the fight for a bigger share of the customer's money. In this case, Random House UK seem somehow to have taken the role of spokesman for publishers in general.
Yesterday's Times, however, in the business section, had an interesting discussion of this situation which dragged in other factors besides the need for companies to make money. The Times man, Robert Cole, raised the question of publishers' public duty. So to speak.
Cole tells us that publishers have a duty to make money. True. Yet they also have, he claims, 'a philanthropic function to perform as well.' What he appears to mean by this is that publishers have some sort of civic duty to publish 'good books' which are never going to make any money but which 'should be published'.
He goes on to suggest that 'too few people in the book-publishing industry have any clear idea of the location of the dividing line between these two honourable pursuits.' As a result, he declares, we are getting, on the one hand, too many books which fail to make a profit, and, on the other, too few titles that ought to appear purely for our edification.
Well, with the greatest respect to Mr Cole, I don't think he has quite got his ideas sorted out here. Like most journalists, he no doubt rattled off his piece in response to an item of news -- as indeed I am doing myself, at this very moment. And both of us might benefit from taking a little longer before lifting our metaphorical pens. But in any case I beg to differ with him.
First, I can see no reason for supposing that commercial publishers have any sort of duty, whether legal or moral, to publish books which lose money. On the contrary, the ideal state of affairs for a commercial publisher would be to publish nothing but books which turn a profit. The fact that this has proved impossible to achieve is neither here nor there in terms of goals.
Some academic publishers, on the other hand, definitely do have a duty to publish worthwhile books, almost regardless of profitability. ('Worthwhile', in this context, means worth publishing in the eyes of competent academic judges.) For a number of years I ran a small publishing company which was part of a UK university. Under the terms of its royal charter that university had a clear obligation to disseminate knowledge. And the charter said nothing about making a profit in the process.
None of this, of course, has anything whatever to do with the fairly mechanical process of ensuring that books are printed in sufficient numbers, and are delivered to booksellers as and when needed. On that issue, my sympathies, for once, are with WHS.