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Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century Paperback – March 27, 2012
An Amazon Book with Buzz: "Sweet Sorrow" by David Nicholls
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"[Thompson] draws on valuable interviews and the mass of statistics that the field itself devours in search of success. He offers a calm, relatively sanguine account of contemporary publishing, a world dominated by the $6 million advance, the blockbuster and the buzz."—Times Literary Supplement
"Thompson bring forensic keeneness, acuity, breadth, depth and wit to this page-turning study of the book trade, its denizens, demons and deities. [Merchants of Culture] ought to be prescribed reading for publishers, booksellers, writers, authors, reporters, reviewers and critics."—Mail & Guardian, South Africa
"John B. Thompson's research has produced an excellent history and analysis; it's a wonderful book, highly recommended."—Australian Book Review
"The single most impressive fact to drive home about this remarkable book is that Thompson displays a rare gift, that of presenting a world of the most heart-stopping complexity in short, simple, inter-related steps ... This is a book to buy and use and keep on your shelf."—Tribune
"A superb history and analysis of publishing and bookselling, from the 1960s to the present, against the background of the rapidly expanding digital media. A salutary, scary read."—John Conwell, The New Statesman
"A thorough and thoughtful analysis of publishing as a relatively self-contained world - a 'field' obeying rules that are ultimately economic, but in ways refracted through maneuvers and conflicts that defy simple cost-benefit analysis. Anyone interested in publishing will want to read it."—Inside Higher Ed
"For some time to come, this is bound to be the definitive thing to read for anyone trying to understand the infrastructure of book culture - especially as it has taken shape over the past two or three decades."—The National
"This impressively comprehensive and revealing analysis of the structures and processes of modern publishing is timely as the industry faces its digital future."—Katharine Reeve, Times Higher Education Book of the Week
"Thompson's study is one of the most valuable studies on publishing in recent decades, and promises to be the new reference point for sociological research on the publishing industry."—Cultural Sociology
"A very valuable book that is likely to become the standard reference on the Anglo-American publishing industry for many years to come."—MedieKultur
"For the uninitiated, Merchants of Culture provides a very perceptive, thorough and in-depth view of how trade publishing really works in the English-speaking world today. For those of us in the business or for writers who are mystified by their publisher's behavior, it offers a penetrating account of our business by a very shrewd, analytical observer. This book is the only thing I've ever read about our industry that has really got it."—William Shinker, President and Publisher of Gotham Books and Avery Books, Penguin Group USA
"Thompson's analysis of UK and US trade publishing is extraordinarily acute and insightful. It should be required reading for new entrants to the industry—but it will also illuminate many things for old publishing hands."—Helen Fraser, Former Managing Director, Penguin Group UK
"This uncommonly perceptive and thorough study tells you all you need to know about the publishing industry at a time of momentous change."—Drake McFeely, Chairman and President, W.W. Norton & Company
"One of the most intelligent and accessible accounts of the curious business of trade book publishing I have read. Anyone interested in knowing more about how our industry works—and where it might be headed—will find this book invaluable."—Morgan Entrekin, CEO and Publisher, Grove Atlantic
"An eye-opening tour of both American and British trade publishing. Even veterans in the publishing world will learn a lot, and novices will feel welcome, in this behind-the-scenes examination of how book publishing works in an age of mass marketing and digitization. Thompson knows more about contemporary publishing than any other scholar. He asks just the right questions of his sources, and their responses offer unique and illuminating testimony from an array of publishing insiders. Theoretically sophisticated but not burdened by academic apparatus, this is a landmark work."—Michael Schudson, Columbia University
"Thompson's ground-breaking research into the world of consumer book publishing provides a fascinating insight into the high-risk culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Revealed is the world of agents and scouts, of auctions and deals, often with large sums of money paid out to authors, as publishers gamble in the hope of signing the next Harry Potter or Dan Brown. His work is of the highest quality and should be read by all those concerned about our literary culture and its future."—Angus Phillips, Director, Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies
"From now on whenever anyone asks me how they can get published or get a job in publishing I'm going to tell them to buy this book because it is simply perfect at summing up how the whole messy business works and explaining why it very frequently doesn't work. It teaches a careful reader as much as any three year degree course on the subject."—Andrew Crofts, author of The Freelance Writer's Handbook
"As soon as I tore open the box, I had to start reading...It's frank, comprehensive, well-researched, with lots of interviews with people who know—and it pulls no punches. Want to know about the rise of the literary agent or why your mid-list books aren't marketed properly or what the digital revolution means for the author in the street? Then buy this book."—Karen Ball, author of Starring Me as Third Donkey
From the Back Cover
In this book - the first major study of trade publishing for more than 30 years - Thompson situates the current challenges facing the industry in an historical context, analyzing the transformation of trade publishing in the United States and Britain since the 1960s. He gives a detailed account of how the world of trade publishing really works, dissecting the roles of publishers, agents and booksellers and showing how their practices are shaped by a field that has a distinctive structure and dynamic. Against this backdrop Thompson analyzes the impact of the digital revolution on book publishing and examines the pressures that are reshaping the field of trade publishing today.
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What I didn't like: A lengthy chapter on the digital revolution is, by this point, a bit out of date. Yes, some of the general principles still apply, but there's no commentary on the current resurgence of print or even the self-publishing movement and its role in putting price pressure on traditional publishers. The writing style is awkward at times, and the author sometimes repeats himself where such repetition isn't needed. Also, Thompson clearly has to make efforts to avoid biting the hand that feeds him. The edition I read was published by Plume (which is owned by Penguin). So it makes perfect sense that he pulls his punches. Any severe criticism of big publishing or its corporate owners is offset by several caveats. For example, Thompson dismisses André Schiffrin's THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS as extreme, but doesn't engage with Schiffrin's arguments or even acknowledge that Schiffrin's perspective was based on decades of first hand experience.
Summary: Read it for the juicy stories, feel free to skim past the passages that are outdated or reek of academic pseudo-theory. If you're interested in books like this, maybe also check out the more up-to-date LITERARY PUBLISHING IN THE 21ST CENTURY or the aforementioned THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS.
On the other hand, the book is very dry and lengthy. I’d only recommend it for people who are particularly motivated to learn about publishing, not for fun.
The author is coming very much from the perspective as an academic, someone who is an outsider to the business world. At times, this is great because he describes a lot of detail that an insider may not notice. On the other hand, the detail can get a little excessive. For example, at one point he remarks how it’s important that book marketing people now need to know that Flash video isn’t indexed in search engines.
Overall a useful read. It only goes up until 2011 - I’d love to see an update for all the change that’s happened since then.
Top international reviews
Particularly during the last decade, the development of digital technologies have revolutionised publishing. Authors now write their books using wordprocessing. Publishers have digital work streams that connect the different elements of of their value stream, including proofreaders, typesetters and printers, as well as the archival process. Print on demand digital printing has of course opened up opportunities for self publishing (think Blurb), but it also creates new opportunities for small publishers and specialist texts. Kindle and other e-books are beginning to change the economics of bookselling, and indeed book publication.
Thomson has unprecedented access to major movers and players throughout the process and is used this to interview many of those who are deeply involved in the current industry, sometimes in changing it. His book is readable and thought-provoking. Most authors will certainly get important insights about the role of agents. Agents may learn something about publishers. And so on.
In the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, it's an important time for every citizen, and especially every book lover, to become informed about the state of play in the publishing industry, and this is the book that will do it.of
This book looks at where the publishing industry came from, and looks in detail at it's more recent history, the seismic changes brought about in the last 30 years by things like the Net Book agreement (and the effect of it on book retailers), the advent of electronic publishing, the ability of just about anyone to pirate books with photocopiers and scanners, the incredible advances in publishing techniques and technologies and the tortuous changes and complexities of how publishing is financed. It looks at how the publishing industry itself has had to continuously restructure, regroup and reinvent itself to account for ever more new channels and styles of publication. It looks at the dangers of dominant publishers, and revels in the almost seditious activities of the small players.
If that all sounds like a rollercoaster ride, it's because that's exactly what it has been, and will continue to be. My own interest area is in the effect on traditional publishing of electronic and online publishing, so although I skimmed the sections dealing with other matters I concentrated more on the sections concerned with e-everything. I did find the section on early publishing very interesting, I'd never really thought about how much the advent of internationally organised publishing must have changed the world.
On the e-publishing sections, Mr Thompson seems to reserve judgement on issues such as "will dead tree publishing survive" and "will people continue to pay for published work". He does explain, in some detail, the arguments and counter arguments of those who believe that conventional publishing has a future, and those who say it will eventually dissolve away and that citizen publishing will be all that is left. I think he is wise not to take sides: As the book shows, the recent history of the industry is littered with wildly inaccurate predictions of its demise, and yet it's still up and running. Whether it will take a generation change to bring about the prediction is something that we have to wait and see. In the meantime, the crazy, vibrant, cut-throat, erudite, banal, beautiful, shabby and fascinating industry of publishing will continue evolving towards the future. This book describes it all in a thoughtful way, without any rose-tinting.
If you have the least interest in the industry that shapes and delivers the various publications (paper or otherwise) you consume, you'll find material of interest in this book - though which sections you will read in detail will probably depend (like me) on your interest area.
If you actually work in publishing, you will be enthralled at a breathtaking ride around your industry and its history: You'll find much to provoke fresh thought, revaluation and probably heated debate about what is said.
This is not one of the books that goes into gross detail about what exactly folio and quarto mean, or about the business of Gutenberg. It's a relatively up-to-date and comprehensive look at the business of selling books. Instead of just pulling together a narrative based on clippings however, Thompson has spoken to many players in the industry and provides - often unattributed, for the sake of being able to gain frankness in return for anonymity - quotes from publishers, agents and booksellers.
The first few chapters deal in depth - and more entertainingly than you would think - with the shifts in bookselling in recent years, the rise of the literary agent and the now 40-50 year shift towards publishing houses merging, being acquired and scaling (or not, as the case may be with "decentralised" or "fragmented" publishers). It then moves on to an analysis of the digital revolution, a section I suspect will date quickly, alas, as it might prevent this being considered a classic work.
Of course, this book is not a career guide, but it does map out the roles and gives a taste of where the industry has moved recently, and where it might go soon. I would therefore suggest it as useful background reading for anybody interested in the trade. I'd also encourage people who care about the future of the book - and who want to understand how we go here - to read it.
What strikes me though, is the appeal to a general reader. On several occasions I've found myself engrossed and staying up far too late, one time pondering until 2am the market dynamics that have meant Costco is one of the largest single sellers of front-list fiction in the US and the supermarkets being in a similar position in the UK! Perhaps I'm just a book geek, but this has quickly become one of my favourite books about books and I expect to revisit it again and again.
If there is one failing keeping it from taking 5 stars, it's the rare occasions where in order to remain factually correct the reader is given a synopsis of publishing house mergers that is a little dull - I'd have loved to known more about what went on behind those takeovers rather than just lists of names of publishing houses.
The book covers the rise of the literary agent, the development of the large conglomerates which dominate publishing in the 21st century, changes in technology which have created changes in publishing and the possible future of publishing. There is a comprehensive bibliography, details of how the author's research was carried out, an index and a table of contents as well as many tables and graphs included in the text. It is well written and accessible without being in any way patronising to the reader. This book will probably be of interest to anyone on a media studies course especially at university level.
I found the chapter on the growth of e-books very interesting having just bought an e-book reader. At the time the book was written e-books were not as popular as many thought they would be though the situation was regarded as volatile and unpredictable. This chapter would possibly need revising now in the light of Amazon's recent launch of the Kindle in the UK and the rapid increase in the number and variety of e-books available.
There are some intriguing statistics about how publicity - such as inclusion in Oprah's book club in the US or Richard and Judy in the UK - affects sales. There is also information about how the releasing of a film of a book affects the book's sales with some examples. I was interested in the way supermarkets have affected sales of books in the UK and how the most popular books are sold in their hundreds of thousands in such outlets. The comments of some in the publishing trade are interesting in this respect as some seem to have grasped the fact that they can work with supermarkets to get books to people who might otherwise not read at all.
This is a truly fascinating book and I would recommend it to anyone who has ever wondered what goes on in publishing. It reveals that though money is obviously of vital importance many publishers also have an interest in publishing worthwhile books which may or may not make them much money. Decisions about which books to publish are still made very much on instinct showing that books are different in some ways from other commodities. The one thing I took from this book is that publishing is changing very rapidly and that while large multinationals dominate there is increasing room for smaller independent publishers to make their mark. Readers can expect a greater choice of reading material in the future in a greater variety of formats. Publishing is alive and well and starting to move with the times.
As the author makes clear, publishing is at a crossroads. There is a cataclysmic change just round the corner and this will hit both profit margins and indeed the whole way we think about books. The ground swell is in the amount of information being passed about the internet at present in electronic form: pdf documents, word files and the many ebook formats. The storm is on the horizon: already ebook sales at Amazon are exceeding hardback sales, and hardbacks are where publishers see their main profit.
Moreover, there is the possibility of chain hardback ' paperback ' ebook being broken or curtailed. The value of a book as far as the publisher is concerned might be $30, say, but the value to an author is likely to be only $3 per unit. Given the enormous amount of added-value in going to paper print, there is the temptation for authors to want to wrestle back control of the printing industry from the publishers, and middlemen such as Amazon could well be the people to do that: if there is no printed book, what do conventional publishers add to the process?
This book opens up all sorts of ideas about where the industry may be heading, whilst toeing the conventional publishing line, and leaves a gigantic questionmark over the whole industry, one that has survived 500 years but may have seen its day.
If you want to learn about conventional publishing as it stands now, this is as good a place as any to start.
A sociologist by background, Thompson opens with a summary of his research techniques, which for me was the only dry part of the text (although academics may well get more from it). From that point, he produces a lucid, easy-to-understand account of the economics of the book trade and it's a fascinating read from beginning to end. What makes it so fascinating is that he's examining the US and UK fictions markets - pointing out where the economic pressures and dynamics are shared and where (and why) they diverge.
What is clear is that in the last 20 years sales have become king with marketing and sales figures being the key part in a publisher's (and by token, agent's and author's) success but by the same token no one can be sure as to which book is going to have the greatest sales. In the UK there is close examination of the rise of `mega' buyers, with supermarkets such as Tescos and Sainsburys entering the market and the effect that has had on publishers (notably in terms of returnability and prices) while in the US, there's more of a focus on the chainstore bookstores.
Although Thompson's research ends in late 2009 before the impact of the iPad on the book market was really becoming measurable, he does consider the impact of the Kindle and other electronic devices to date. However, I didn't feel that he really drew any conclusions beyond the idea of their being game changers - certainly there was little analysis beyond discussion of the potential for new content and technology solutions. This is understandable given that the market itself is still trying to get to grips with it but it remains the only real weakness in the book.
For authors and would-be fiction authors this is a must-read because it is such a good summary of the industry that they are in/trying to get into. There's a good index at the back and a solid bibliography for people who want to do more reading into the subject.
It's of course particularly interesting with a view to the future of publishing. Will books survive as we know them or will ebooks etc. take over - and what will then happen to the traditional machinery of the publishing world? The author can't answer those questions, but with his knowledge of the trade, he can make some plausible and interesting hypotheses (although his take on ebooks might turn out to be a bit outdated already now!).
Don't be put off by the rather dry introduction, I'm sure you'll find it interesting whether you are a student, an industry player or you just like a good read.
The point of the book, and its analysis, is that publishing is changing more quickly now than ever before, with the advent of modern digital media. This book outlines exactly what the current state of the industry is, and exactly how words get through the many hurdles to the finished article of print media.
Going back to the 1960s, and analysing how publishing has changed from then until now, the author then attempts to draw lessons for the future. I reckon that anyone who is looking to get themselves published needs to read this book.
The author goes on to assess the future of the book itself: something that has been around for the best part of half a millennium may well have had its day.
The text is rather dense, but if you want to learn about something new, this is a great place to start.