Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B Thompson

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Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B Thompson

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Category: Business and Finance
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An in-depth look at trade publishing that's also eminently readable and accessible - highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Polity
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0745661063

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The publishing industry has been with us since the fifteenth century, but the major changes have manifested themselves in the twenty-first century and John B Thompson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, has taken a detailed look at the state of trade publishing (that's the type of book you're likely to find in your local library or bookshop), the influences which have brought it to that state and the outlook. This might sound rather dry but, trust me, it's not. It wasn't a fast read, but only because there were so many things to think about, prejudices to readjust and information to absorb. I read it over a week - and for a reviewer that's a rare luxury.

Another rare luxury is being invited to review a book which is relevant to your own business and which you would have bought and read before keeping it as a reference book. It was rather like being taken into a cave by an experienced guide and having a light shone into unexpected corners. I learned more about the publishing industry in a week than I have in many years of sitting at its edge.

It's easy to think of an author writing a book, sending it to his publisher and then waiting whilst it's sent out to booksellers and hopefully rises to the top of the bestseller lists. The reality is different and Thompson begins with one of the final parts of the process - the growth of the retail chains, both in the USA and the UK. It's not just Amazon with its exclusively online presence but Barnes and Noble, Borders and Waterstones as well as many more. There's a look at the history, of how they've superseded the small bookshops and at their advantages and disadvantages. Most fascinating was the look at the depth of stock (particularly of backlists) which they carry and why.

We then move back to near the beginning of the chain with a look at the rise of the literary agents. It's as hard these days to get an agent as it is to get a publisher. There's a look at the history of the profession but I found the information about the rise of the super agent the most useful, particularly in relation to Morton Janklow and Andrew Wylie - the people who went out there and fought for the best deals for their clients rather than the better known species who seemed to be more often in bed with the publisher than supporting their client.

The part which came as the least surprise to me was about the emergence of publishing corporations. When we first set up Bookbag was looked at all the different 'publishers' and then established which were imprints of which publisher. For a while it looked as though it would be like racehorses with them all going back to a few common parents, but eventually we established that there were about six major publishing corporations in the UK - and much the same in the US. (Thompson's appendix giving the details of the major houses and their imprints is gold dust.) How this came about and which groups are more devolved in their management than others makes fascinating reading. Thompson is perhaps least good when talking about figures - having a tendency to repeat what his graphs and charts tell us - but his 'less good' is still above the norm and his great strength is in showing the nuances and subtleties of any situation. The next chapter, on the polarization of the field, shows how the various publishers emerged in the form which they hold.

And then we come to the books themselves and particularly the concept of big books, something which I've been familiar with as a reviewer without ever quite being able to define the term. Publishers are putting more and more of their resources behind the books which they see as the sure sellers, but spotting them in advance is on a par with picking this week's lottery numbers and it's made even more difficult when you know that the book could be fiction or non-fiction. Publishers have their targets, set by the corporations which own them and they'll usually have to find what is called a 'gap book' - one which fills the difference between what they expect to make and what their owners require of them - hence the emergence of those books which didn't appear in the catalogue but which can be produced quickly in the hope of making the extra money.

Then there's the question of the visibility of books and how they are placed in stores. This isn't accidental and is fundamental to the sales campaign as it will cost. More books are being published - and they're effectively fighting for the same window. Where too can you bring the book to the attention of potential readers? There are the major newspapers, but their coverage of book reviews is shrinking and Thompson examines the other places where publishers can glean attention for their books - right through to the Oprah or Richard-and-Judy effect.

The UK and the US are different, particularly so far as publishing goes, with legislation determining the discounts available to sellers in the US but the demise of the Net Book Agreement having the reverse effect in the UK - which brings the sales to supermarkets into prominence. There are squeezes on margins for the publishers in the US and the UK, but in the US it comes from escalating advances whilst in the UK it's escalating discounts to retailers.

Thompson is particularly strong on the digital revolution in publishing (and has written a book exclusively on this point). The changes are more than could have ever been foreseen, effecting as they do the way that the publishers control information, develop and print the product and even how it is read. The possibilities are mind-blowing, particularly when you consider one printer's view that it used to be that the printing of the book had to precede the selling but that can now be reversed. There's a look at the future of the publishing industry and its uncertainties and frankly it's thought-provoking and rather frightening.

Few books make such a mark as this one has on me. Admittedly I have a special interest in the subject but anyone who wants to know about where their books come from or how the industry works will find it a riveting read. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

For the autobiography of one publisher, try So Much To Tell by Valerie Grove. It's something a little different, but if this book appeals then you might also enjoy Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation by Frank Furedi.

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