The world of book publishing has always been a world torn between cultural conscience and commercial necessity. Books may educate and inspire, but they are also products in the marketplace to be bought and sold. And from the days of Gutenberg and Cervantes on down, they have been bought and sold for entertainment and profit no less than for high-minded purposes.
Just how the publishing industry plays out these ends nowadays has recently aroused the curiosity and ire of authors, social critics, and academicians alike. Last year a Writers' Congress was convened in New York to dramatize the grievances of authors and formulate remedies. Last year also brought Thomas Whiteside's lengthy excoriation of publishers in ''The Blockbuster Complex.'' Now we have the sober study by Coser, Kadushin, and Powell -- and much of it makes depressing reading.
Observing the many elements that make up the book-publishing industry, from editorial decisionmaking, to marketing, to reviewing, the authors -- all academic sociologists specializing in the ways social arrangements influence intellectual life -- concentrate on how book publishers act as ''gatekeepers of ideas'' by determining what gets into print and what does not. Some of the findings are predictable, some are not, and many are downright disheartening.
Coser and his colleagues discovered to their surprise that publishers are so disparate that few generalizations apply to them all: mass-market trade publishers have almost nothing in common with cottage operations run by a couple of people, and neither of these much resembles university presses that enjoy subsidies and serve small, specialized audiences. The one rule that does seem to hold for all publishers is one all would-be authors should heed. It is that few manuscripts ever get into print unless the author is known to an editor or has the backing of an intermediary, such as an agent or academic patron. Unsolicited manuscripts that come in ''over the transom'' almost always go out again the same way. And this means that the publishing world is very much an insiders' world, where familiarity and influence are the currency of success.