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Merchants 1, Culture 0
on July 31, 2011
An enormous amount has been written, both online and in print, about the publishing industry in recent years - some of it perceptive; a little (a very little) well-informed; much of it complete rubbish, ranging from the ignorant to the merely opinionated.
The vast majority of this body of commentary has one common factor: its authors have a relationship with the industry, whether as insiders (publishers, agents, authors, booksellers) or as outsiders (mostly self-published authors). That is to say, everyone has some kind of an angle to play, a stance or interest (vested, conflicted or otherwise) to defend, or in plenty of cases an axe to grind.
That stops here. John B. Thompson has written Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century from perhaps the only possible and credible disinterested perspective - that of the academic. He has examined publishing as a business phenomenon, and based his work not on opinion nor on wishful thinking, but on five years' systematic research, including some 280 interviews with industry insiders amounting to 500 hours of first-hand evidence.
Wisely, Professor Thompson has restricted himself to one field of publishing, and has clearly defined that field at the outset. The book focuses on English-language trade publishing in the USA and UK, i.e. general-interest publishing of both fiction and non-fiction, intended for a general readership and sold through the mainstream distribution network. He includes independent presses in his scope, along with print-on-demand and the e-book phenomenon, but excludes self-publishing; he includes Amazon and other online retailers, but excludes channels such as Lulu and Smashwords.
He also confines himself to commenting on the general fiction and non-fiction market, with only passing reference to academic, professional and scholarly publishing, and none at all to specific market sectors such as children's, young adult, science fiction, illustrated art books or self-help works. This scope is set out with admirable clarity in the introduction (pp. 12-13).
Thompson traces the rise and rise of today's publishing conglomerates, noting the three significant forces that have shaped the industry over the past decades: the rise of the major retail chains, the emergence of the literary agent, and the process of corporate acquisitions and mergers which began as early as the 1960s. It is not a story that makes for comforting reading - at least, not to the lover of good literature - as it is the story of the commercialisation and commoditisation of the written word.
He shows, for example, that the early (1960s and 1970s) corporate mergers and acquisitions saw book publishing as just another element of the media and entertainment industry - media conglomerates would buy up publishers in order to secure an ongoing source of film rights. The model failed to deliver, but we are still living with its legacy, for example, in terms of HMV's transformation of the Waterstone's chain into a media outlet after 1998 (see p. 54).
If the media conglomerates created the industry structure for the commoditisation of publishing, it was the literary agents who exploited that structure, and created the dynamic of exclusivity that has been a characteristic of mainstream publishing for the last three decades at least. At the end of the book, Thompson observes that the industry revolves around publishers, buyers and agents, with writers on the far periphery (p. 375).
But agents forge their relationships with the big publishers, not with the small independents. A telling comment comes from Chris, previously a publisher at a small independent house before becoming an editor with one of the large corporations. "When I was at [the small independent house] I always thought of agents as my enemies," he told Thompson; "now I see them as my friends" (p. 206). Thompson is even more forthright (and even less complimentary) about the role of agents in an online interview with Brooklyn Rail last November.
There is one seeming inconsistency in Thompson's thesis. In Chapter 3 he sets out five myths about publishing corporations (pp. 139ff). ("Myth 1: The corporations have no interest in publishing quality books. All they are interested in publishing is commercial bestsellers. ... Myth 4: In the large publishing corporations, editors have lost the power they once had in the traditional publishing houses. Sales directors, marketing directors and accountants are the new power brokers and they decide what gets published.")
He seems anxious to dispel these myths, but spends much of the next 250 pages proving that - despite occasional exceptions - they hold absolutely true, at least for the large corporate players that dominate the industry. Indeed, they define much of the structure of the industry. On page 192, a London agent quotes a recent conversation with an editor at one of the big publishers: 'I don't like having this conversation with you because I want to publish this book, I love the story but I know what's going to happen when I go to the acquisition meeting. They're going to say, "Why are we bothering with these little books that are going to breathe all this valuable oxygen both creatively and promotionally."'
These two "myths" are further validated again and again throughout the book. Of the 5,000-6,000 new titles published each year by the main US houses, Thompson reveals the alarming fact (p. 189) that only 25% will receive any serious attention from the publishers' own sales teams. The impact of this kind of industry polarisation towards the bestseller is shown in Chapter 10, where he shows the number of titles selling between 10,000 and 40,000 copies declining by one third, whilst the (much smaller) number of titles selling over 200,000 copies more than doubled in the same period. The causal link is not hard to infer.
In the same chapter Thompson puts a human face on this phenomenon. He tells the story of Joanne, a moderately successful mid-list author, who first discovered that her publisher was spending nothing on her marketing, and was then dropped altogether, despite a track record of nearly twenty years, six books, good critical reception and even winning prizes. The mainstream publishing industry is a hostile place to the writer - as another author puts it, "everything in publishing is disempowering for a writer" (p. 384).
It can be a pretty hostile place for the reader, too. Thompson devotes much of the last 50 pages of the book to a discussion of "the fundamental short-termism of the industry" (p. 386); this takes several forms, one of which is a distinction between "diversity of output" and "diversity of marketplace ... the diversity of the books that are noticed, purchased and read" (p. 389). It is a crucial distinction, usually overlooked; the lack of diversity in the marketplace strikes at the very heart of our cultural health.
Thompson takes a refreshingly cautious view of e-books, noting that "the world is often much more complicated than the technological determinist would like us to think" (p. 333). He voices concern over the devaluation caused by the e-book revolution, based on the experience of the music industry: he quotes one publisher as saying (p. 362), "Why are songs 99 cents? Because Apple says so. Can the music industry make money at 99 cents? No. But now what does everyone think a song should be worth? 99 cents." It is a lesson that self-publishers would do well to think about: as Thompson observes (p. 368), "a major devaluing of intellectual property is unlikely to lead to an overall increase in the quality of content over time". (Not that three decades of commoditisation have done wonders for the quality of content, mind you.)
Though there are some rays of hope among small independent imprints, in general this book offers neither easy answers nor false comfort. Those who believe or who wish to believe, rightly or wrongly, that corporate mainstream publishing is on its deathbed - culturally hidebound, intellectually moribund, at risk of self-strangulation by an unsustainable commercial model - will find plenty here to reinforce their opinion.
But those who dismiss or ignore mainstream publishing are missing the point. For whether we love the Big Five or loathe them, these are the organisations that have shaped our cultural landscape, our reading habits and expectations, for two generations or more. And Professor Thompson's great achievement, at this time of tumult in the publishing industry, is to offer a comprehensive and dispassionate view of the forces that have shaped and continue to shape these organisations. Anyone who is interested in our shared cultural well-being ignores the implications of his work at their peril.