Parsing Publishing, Then and Now: Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompsen

With this post, continues its regular column in which it reviews, explicates and excerpts books that we think will resonate with people in the business of publishing and media. 


John B. Thompson, University of Cambridge-based sociologist and author of Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Plume, trade paper, 2nd Ed. [1st US], April 2012) has spent the last decade making the book business his academic specialty. The first half of this research—on educational and academic publishing—was published in Books in the Digital Age in 2005 (Polity Press, UK). Thompson has since moved on to trade publishing, and in Merchants of Culture has created a book devoted to the subject. Most of the factual information (copious though it is) won’t be news to industry veterans. However, the care with which Thompson has gathered together so many familiar factors—from sales figures, to legal landmarks, to first-hand accounts—in one place is indisputably impressive and valuable.

Through decades-worth of data and hours of interviews with key players (all of whom remain anonymous according to standard sociological methods), Thompson fleshes out major events of the recent past as they’ve affected retail, agenting, corporate acquisitions and standards for growth, publicity and marketing, legislation, author-publisher relations, and yes, the digital revolution. The majority of Thompson’s examples come from the US, though he does address some issues unique to the UK, (such as the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement in the 90’s), but is always very clear about what generalizations apply to both countries and which do not.

While his exploration of all factors (and the caution with which Thompson always weighs any broad conclusion) are praiseworthy across the board, we found his treatment of the book industry’s struggle to find its place under corporate ownership especially telling. For Thompson, most large publishers’ patterns of acquisition and sales are born out of a traditionally non-data-centered business grappling in recent decades with an unprecedented array of numbers. From within the industry comes increasingly exact data made available by the advent of Bookscan. From without, come standards of growth upheld by the non-publishing public corporations that have acquired most of the Big Six publishers within the past thirty years. Thompson is careful to note, too, the ways in which these corporate-driven patterns affect the entire playing field—even for small independent publishers not directly beholden to stockholders. This meeting of worlds can result in business practices verging on the paradoxical. Thompson cites cases of editors straining to meet corporate demands for an exact quarterly growth percentage by making irrational, knee-jerk acquisitions—and lots of them. Says one CEO: “When we look at books that were bought late in the cycle, they’re almost never profitable, almost never.” Merchants of Culture is also concerned with the way this push and pull between corporate numbers and editorial “gut” molds company culture. It’s a topic to which Thompson returns throughout the book, memorably quoting one senior editor on “the mystique of the imprint, ‘and the one thing corporate owners are scared shitless of is messing with mystique.’”

Although Thompson’s assertions of what publishers “should do” or even of what is “really happening” are cautious and delivered sparingly, his discussion of the digital revolution offers one of his most vivid depictions of how publishers can grapple with a future where book-business is intertwined with companies and concerns whose primary business is not books:

[Publishers] are in the position of a water company who owns and controls the water supply but doesn’t own the pipes that deliver the water to the consumers. If some consumers decide that they would prefer to receive their water through a different kind of pipe, then the company needs to be in a position to supply it for that pipe. They don’t necessarily need to build a new pipe themselves—they can let others for it and take the risks. But they do need to make sure that their water can be pumped through the new pipe and that those who own and control the pipe don’t have a stronghold on the supply chain.

With a few exceptions (such as the above) Thompson’s “diagnostics” are all corralled in the last chapter of the book “Trouble in the Trade”. By the time the reader reaches this point, he or she is likely to be convinced enough of Thompson’s grasp of the factors to read his opinions with interest, if nothing else. He addresses “short-termism” (whose symptoms include, among other things, neglect of backlist and increasingly poor acquisition choices); treatment (or maltreatment) of authors, and that celebrity du jour, discoverability.

Thompson’s motivation may be sociological in nature, but in this uncertain moment for the publishing industry, there’s no reason why his project—to explain how an industry explains itself to itself—should not be of interest to those professionals making it their business to know publishing inside and out.

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