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Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century Paperback – 16 Mar 2012

4.4 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Polity Press; 2nd Revised edition edition (16 Mar. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0745661068
  • ISBN-13: 978-0745661063
  • Product Dimensions: 15.4 x 3.4 x 22.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 15,682 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


"A fine–grained snapshot... of the terminal struggle of traditional publishers. [Thompson′s] mordant picture of an industry in crisis gives publishers, writers and readers much to think about."
Jason Epstein, The New York Review of Books

"Enlivened by pseudonymous interviewees who are remarkably and tantalisingly candid."
The Guardian

"[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."

"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 for 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."

"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 and several other children′s books

"The book is written in a style that is both elegant and easy to follow. There is a good balance between, on the one hand, dry numbers and figures and, on the other, colourful anecdote and informative metaphor. Thompson s own book is a comprehensive and rigorous history of trade publishing, which will lead both scholars, editors or people with a more general interest in publishing to think about books in new and more complex ways."
Helena Agustí–Gómez, University of Glasgow

From the Back Cover

The world of book publishing is going through turbulent times. For nearly five centuries the methods and practices of book publishing remained largely unchanged, but at the dawn of the 21st century the industry finds itself faced with perhaps the greatest challenges since Gutenberg. A combination of economic pressures and technological change is forcing publishers to alter their practices and think hard about the future of the book in the digital age.

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.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Merchants of Culture is a fine study of the publishing world that will be interesting to lovers of books, business thinkers and of course professionals, including authors, in the publishing world. By writing a thorough and illuminating study of the world of publishing as it is developed and exists today, John Thompson has provided a useful case study of commercial business models, indeed multiple case studies in as much as he looks at the world of the author, the agent, the publisher and the bookseller. For that reason, I would also recommend the book to academics and thinkers in the business world is one of the finest studies of an industry and a complete value stream that is available. The book is written to the highest standards of academic rigour but with the clarity and figure that makes it enjoyable for an intelligent reader.

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.
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By AlanMusicMan TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 6 Jan. 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I haven't read all through this book, I admit that I cherry picked the sections of most interest to me.

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".
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Format: Hardcover
Recently I've been buying and reading a lot of "books about books". Books about collecting, selling, publishing and writing in all its guises. When this came up for review on Vine, I was genuinely intrigued.

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.
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