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

Gabriel Cohen

As the coordinator of Sundays at Sunny’s, one of New York City’s longest-running literary reading series, I have shot the breeze with hundreds of my fellow authors. Their most common complaint—hands down—is this: “My publicist/publisher doesn’t do anything for me.” Most writers harbor secret hopes that their books will become breakout best-sellers, and it can be quite a shock to find that works that required years or even decades of great effort often flicker into print, then disappear without a trace.

Credit: © John B. Thompson

We writers experience our little corners of the publishing world, but the overall system often seems murky, if not downright impenetrable. If we had access to the bigger picture, we’d discover that the inadequate promotion and marketing of most books does not necessarily represent a failure of one publicist or publishing house. In fact, to borrow a saying from the world of computer programming, That’s not a bug—it’s a feature.

In his latest book, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, published last September by Polity Press, John B. Thompson elucidates the complexity of the book-publishing industry. A professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Thompson is one of very few writers and academics who have attempted to examine publishing in a truly multifaceted and comprehensive way. His study of academic publishing, Books in the Digital Age, was published in 2005. Merchants of Culture, a refreshingly accessible read, demystifies the world of general-interest trade publishing in the United States and in his home country.

As one of the subjects Thompson spoke to during his research, I decided to turn the tables and ask him about the big picture he had pieced together through literally hundreds of such interviews, and to see if he could explain what’s behind the distressing problem of scant marketing. We met in a café in New York City’s West Village.

What mission did you set out to accomplish in writing this book?
My aim was to try to understand the world of trade publishing: how it has changed since the 1960s, and how it’s changing today. How is it organized, and where is it going? The surprising thing was, when I began researching the book-publishing industry ten years ago, no one in academia had taken the subject seriously for about thirty years. It’s a world that is largely ignored by serious scholars. Many authors know little about it.

So I threw myself into this world; I immersed myself in it as an anthropologist would study a remote tribe in the South Pacific. I interviewed 280 people working in the industry of trade publishing in London and New York City—publishers and editors, people who work in the publishing houses, agents and booksellers, and authors. I was able to show that there is a very specific relationship among different forces and processes within the field that produces a certain dynamic. And all the players operate within the constraints of what I call the logic of the field.

I don’t think logic is the first word most people think of when it comes to publishing.
You’re right. Logic doesn’t mean that it is logical—that it’s reasonable or rational. It simply means that there is a set of forces and processes that shape what actors do. This field, which looks to the outsider like a chaotic mess, actually has a structure and a dynamic to it.

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Publishing in The Twenty-First Century

Thanks to Gabriel Cohen and John Thompson for this interview and its clear-eyed description of many of the major issues in contemporary publishing.

I personally think the printed book and the electronic book are both here to stay, and will live eventually in some sort of comfortable relationship to each other. I believe the method of production for the printed version will migrate soon, though, and pretty definitely, toward the Print-On-Demand model, in which books will be printed in as short a press-run as one copy, which will be paid for by the reader upon placing the order, i.e. before the book is printed. The need for long press-runs, big inventories, the warehousing of large numbers of books, the weight of all that paper, printing ink, bindery machinery, etc. etc. - and the costs of all that - will be greatly reduced.

This technology has been a long time coming. But it is here now and within the next few years will become the print technology of choice, even for highly-designed books filled with fine photography and complicated graphics. Traditional book stores needn't be adversely affected, since they too will benefit from the inventory/warehousing savings mentioned here.

Terence Clarke
author of A Kiss For Señor Guevara

Of the Making of Books

Thank you for your behind-the-scenes perspective on the volatile and perplexing world of book publishing.
* * *

overproduced and devalued,
have become the kindling
of their own immolation—
reduced, like their authors,
to a dwindling status:
used as loss leaders
in the battle for readers.

thanks ...

... 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

A couple of boarder-line fallacies here

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.