Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

“All you need to know about the industry at a time of momentous change.”
-Drake McFeely, chairman and president, W.W. Norton & Company

For nearly five centuries, the world of book publishing remained largely static. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the industry faces a combination of economic pressures and technological change that is forcing publishers to alter their practices and think hard about the future of the book.

John Thompson’s riveting account dissects the roles of publishers, agents, and booksellers in the United States and Britain, charting their transformation since the 1960s. Offering an in-depth analysis of how the digital revolution is changing the game today, Merchants of Culture is the one book that anyone with a stake in the industry needs to read.

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3 Responses to Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

  1. Merchants 1, Culture 0 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…

  2. John T. T. Intera

    A must-read for anyone who cares about books

  3. Midwest Book Review

    Essential reading for members of the publishing industry (including authors and book reviewers!)

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