One of the reasons the development of publishing throughout the world is so interesting is that it is truly a microcosm of the different societies in which it exists and a mirror of the way in which modern capitalism has evolved. Technically, there is no inherent reason for publishing to be very different from what it was in the nineteenth century. Until quite recently, it still followed the traditional artisanal model rather than the modern corporate one, and in fact was not so different from the enterprises Balzac describes in Lost Illusions. More important, publishing was seen as a profession, not just as a business. People who were really interested in making money did not choose it as a career. Though of course publishers needed to make enough to keep their companies going, none expected the business to be wildly profitable. As I pointed out in The Business of Books, the average profit of publishing houses throughout Western Europe and the United States, during much of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, was in the range of 3 to 4 percent per annum, roughly the amount of interest paid by a savings bank. Until the firms began to be bought up by large media conglomerates, only a few decades ago, that percentage was considered perfectly adequate. It was only when the new owners began to compare the profits of their publishing houses with those of their radio networks, television stations, newspapers, and magazines that they began to worry. How could they justify ‘subsidizing’ their book publishers at the expense of their other holdings? This is the way they often explained their position. Surely the publishers could manage to earn at the very least 10 percent a year, if not 15 percent, bringing themselves into line with what the others were making.
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