The full service

Welcome back to publishing’s autumn term, and the much anticipated annual cookbook wars. Jamie v Nigella. Hugh v Lorraine. Ottolenghi v Slater. As we approach the final quarter of a tricky year, a lot of houses are gambling on consumer appetites in this sector remaining insatiable.

But if you’re holding out for those day-glo Less Than Half-Price stickers closer to Christmas, spare a moment’s thought for the army of specialists who help create these books. The copy editors, proof-readers, photographers, indexers, picture researchers, stylists, recipe-testers and location-finders. Without whom none of it would be possible.  Just check out those pages and pages of acknowledgements at the back.

And somewhat akin to those mechanics in Formula 1 pit-lanes, this small army of experts are often expected to put these books together with precision at breakneck speed. Not exactly changing four tyres in 2.6 seconds, but you know what I mean.

It isn’t just illustrated colour books. As the question of who adds most value to the author pre-occupies every vested interest in the route to market, the significance of specialist professionals has never been more relevant. The challenge for publishers is that the perennial drive for efficiency has meant many, if not most of these roles are now occupied not by members of staff, but by independent freelancers. Many of whom are actually the publishing refugees of the last twenty years, those who represent years of expertise and a commitment to quality, and who were always less concerned with front of house glamour. These former overheads needed to be a variable cost, a tap you could turn on and off when required. But they’ve never stopped being needed.

Just ask the authors. The ones who move publishing houses for big bucks but insist on continuing to work with their trusted copy-editors. Or those who started out being self-published and have come into the traditional publishing fold, partly to benefit from what Brian Murray, HarperCollins global c.e.o. called “full-service”.
A senior figure at a US publishing house helped inspire the creation of our new whitefox agency by talking to me about publishers needing to differentiate their books from the tsunami of self-publishing by brandishing the equivalent of a ‘kitemark’ of quality.

Something to illustrate the care, complexity and attention to detail which the publishing pit-crew bring to any project, and which are often taken for granted. To represent a process based on experience and specialist knowledge. It used to be that a colophon alone could do that. I’m not sure that is enough any more.

This is not the sum total of a publisher’s role. Of course advances and distribution matter. But let’s not forget the contribution of those who help make writers and their books as good as they can be. Publishers will continue to be pickers and producers. But successful 21st-century publishing will need access to the people who really do stuff more than ever.