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Publishing in the Twenty-First Century: An Interview With John B. Thompson

In the music and movie industries, the fact that you can digitally copy and share files has created major problems. That hasn’t really happened in the book industry, that people are pirating e-books. Why not?
It is happening. There are plenty of sites where you can find books uploaded. There’s a sort of subculture of book pirating online. Many of the big publishers are constantly scrutinizing the Web, trying to find illicit versions of Harry Potter or Dan Brown books or whatever it might be. If they find them, they threaten legal action. Piracy does exist and the industry is very worried about it. Publishers have tried to deal with it by DRM [digital rights management]. They wrap a DRM envelope around the digital files before they sell them. That doesn’t stop pirated editions from appearing, because it’s easy enough to scan a book and put the files up.

Do you sense that there’s less panic about this in the book industry than in the music industry?
Probably, but there’s plenty of anxiety about it, which is why the DRM issue has been so sensitive. One of the complaints that readers have is that you can buy an e-book on your Kindle but you can’t share it the way you can a physical book. How you protect digital files is a big issue in the industry. There’s a great fear that once you put stuff out there digitally, it will become freely circulating and you will be unable to monetize it.

The other big anxiety—maybe the foremost one in the minds of those in the industry—is price deflation. When you have big technology companies like Amazon and Google and Apple involved in the creative industries, they tend to use content as a means to drive their market share and to drive the sales of their hardware. For them, content is cannon fodder, almost, in their struggle to become dominant players in the technology and retail markets. For the content creators, which are authors and publishers, this means that you run the risk that your content is being devalued: Content is being used to fight another battle. So what you see is very aggressive action on the part of retailers and technology companies to price content cheaply. The classic example is, of course, the Kindle. When Amazon launched  the Kindle, they announced—to the surprise of all the publishers—that New York Times best-sellers were going to be sold for $9.99. As we know, they were losing money on every copy they were selling, but they were doing it because they wanted to send a message that the value of a book, of that content, is really under $10—just like the “value” of a song from iTunes was 99¢.

Publishers responded by saying, “That’s not the value of it. That’s what you want to price it at in order to persuade consumers to buy the Kindle to increase your market share in the retail sector. But you’re losing money on every copy you’re selling, and that can’t go on forever. There comes a certain point where you’ve got it in people’s minds that the value is $9.99—then you’re going to come back to us and say, ‘I’m sorry but we’re not going to pay you whatever we were paying you for this content anymore, so you’re going to have to lower your prices.’” There’s a hemorrhaging of value out of the industry, which is exactly what happened in the music industry. That is the great danger that the publishing industry now faces, and it has consequences for authors. If the content is valued more cheaply, then authors will get less too. In my view, this is not good for the industry. Everyone—authors, agents, publishers—needs to stand up and defend the value of his content. It’s not easy writing a book. It takes a long time; it’s not easy producing a book beautifully and marketing it well, making people pay attention to it. You can’t devalue it to the point where you’re not able to remunerate the creative players.

People talk about this technological revolution as if it’s inevitable, as if the changes are inherent in the technology, rather than the result of decisions being made by people.
Absolutely. It’s what I call the technological fallacy—that technology is somehow the driving force of change. You see this so much in commentaries on these industries. So many of the people who are writing about the book industry are basically technophiles. They love technology; they think the publishing industry is a dinosaur and that it’s all going to be swept aside by these fancy new gadgets. What they miss is that publishing is a complex field of actors and players and agents who are human beings actively involved in content—and that readers are human beings who have their own tastes and preferences. Technology isn’t just an independent variable that drives through all that come hell or high water. It’s part of a complex social process.

The truth is that we’re in the middle of a revolution, and no one knows what its outcome is going to be. No one. There are lots of people who will tell you with great confidence that e-books are going to sweep aside books, and in fifteen or twenty years there will be no physical books, and others who’ll tell you that they’ll be 50 percent of the market, and others who will say 20 percent…all this is pure speculation. The death of the book-publishing industry has been wrongly foretold many times. I think we’re going to see a very complex metamorphosis of the field, in which print books and e-books are going to live alongside each other. I don’t think you’re going to have a swing from one extreme to the other, a situation in which print books survive only as collector’s items, like the vinyl LP. Too many people love the physicality of the book, and they see it as a work of art and an object that they value and can share with others. I don’t think that’s going to go away. But I think you’re going to have certain types of book content that are going to be read increasingly by means of reading devices of one kind or another, especially the kind of book that people don’t want to collect as an object but really want its content available as cheaply as possible, to be able to read it and move on to the next one. I think that frontlist commercial fiction, romance—genres of that kind—will probably see growing electronic sales, whereas other areas of publishing may be very resistant. I don’t think there’s going to be a simple transition from one medium to another, as if we’re just going to replace print with e-books.

Because of the technology, it’s relatively easy for an author to “publish” a book by putting it online in such a way that it’s directly accessible to readers. Theoretically, an author can cut out editors, agents, and the whole publishing industry. What are those players doing to hold on to their power?
There’s a very big difference between “publishing” in the sense of making something publicly available, on the one hand, and publishing in the sense of getting readers to notice it, read it, buy it, discuss it, and so on. Any author can post anything online, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is going to pay attention to it. That’s where the role of publishers remains absolutely vital—they play a fundamental role in bringing content to the attention of others, of publicizing it, of marketing it.

There are other functions of publishers that remain crucial. One is the traditional role of publishers as the creditors of last resort. Basically, they’re the only ones who take a risk with content and put up the money. Who is going to pay you to write a book, who’s going to give you an advance or pay other players to publicize it, and so on? Yes, you can get rid of that, but then Stephen King is not going to get an advance—he’s simply going to have to take the risk that he can put his content up and other people will find it. He may be successful because he’s already resting on the shoulders of publishers who have done all that for him for a number of years; but if no one knows who you are, then you’re going to have to try to make your voice heard out there all on your own. No one is going to help you, to give you any money to do it; there’ll be no advance to write the book. That’s what the publisher does, and that’s not going to go away.

Gabriel Cohen’s six books include the novel The Ninth Step, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2010. He is also a freelance journalist and essayist, and teaches a class called How to Build a Writer’s Life at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.

Reader Comments

  • Peter Turner says...

    John B. Thompson's book, "The Merchants of Culture" is fascinating reading but in this interview I think he misreads a couple of the dynamics that have made trade publishing such a difficult industry in recent years.
    He cites what he calls the "growth conundrum"--that is, the requirement from shareholders for publishing companies to grow 10% annually in an industry with no or little growth in sales overall. If you’re part of a large corporation, you can’t remain static. The reason why publishers don't "just publish more books" isn't because it over burden's the sales force it's because good, commercially viable books don't come out of a spigot. You can’t just open the value more and get more books. Authors (my and large) create books, not publishers. Most of the publishers I have ever known and their acquiring editors, sign and publish as many good, commercially viable books as the can. The “growth conundrum” is more a dynamic of competition for limited resources. To grow, you need to get more market share. And, a general trade house, to get more market share you have to pay more for the books than other publishers are willing or able to, which puts capital investment increasingly at risk.
    One might think, “You just publish more books.” Indeed, some of them tried to do that a few years ago. In fact, that’s a false answer; it just makes your problems worse. If you’re a Random House, you’re dealing with several thousand books a year—several thousand new product lines. Your sales force is overwhelmed. It’s no good saying, “I want to publish a hundred more books.” They can’t cope.
    The other observation that I would take exception with is that publishers publish more books than they market. That is, they print them, ship them to bookstores but don’t have a plan for promoting them. Well, the vast majority of retail products are “marketed” in just the same way. Next time you go shopping, notice what’s in your cart and how and why you came to buy it. More often than marketing, the purchase was driven by a recommendation by a third party or simply by discovering it on the shelf. Right? The fallacy here is that Mr. Thompson doesn’t consider putting books on shelves in bookstores as marketing. It is.
    When we talk about the publishing industry, we have to be very careful to make distinctions. There are many different kinds of trade publishers, small and large, general, niche, commercial, and academic—and the dynamics that traditionally supported their businesses are distinct in important ways. Most of the press coverage on the industry, and most of the books published on the subject, tend to over-emphasize the significance of a small handful of very large publishing houses, while the vast majority of books are published by small presses with very different business models.

  • marcus_speh says...

    ... for this excellent interview! i'm involved in a multi-year research project in germany where we work with firms supporting the publishing industry, which is very concerned indeed - willing to try all manner of things at the moment. the information contained in this article is very useful.
    as a writer, i'm equally intrigued though not too worried. i took the liberty to repost this article at kaffe in katmandu an online collective of writers and artists. cheers from berlin – marcus speh

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Publishing in the Twenty-First Century: An Interview With John B. Thompson (March/April 2011)
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