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. 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
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". 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.
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. 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.
Publishing always seems - to an outsider - a mysterious trade. I have pictures of elderly men working in hushed, wood panelled offices, seated behind huge mahogany desks. Of course these days publishers are far more likely to be working at the top of a tall office building surrounded by computers and modern furniture. Publishing is big business in the 21st century and no longer the province of leisured gentlemen. This fascinating study of publishing in the UK and in the US over the last forty years is thought provoking reading. Packed full of facts and figures and quotes from people employed in the industry, the book can be read by the general reader as well as those with a specialist interest.
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.
on 25 June 2013
There are remarkably few books that examine the US and UK book industry in this kind of detail and with such understanding of the processes, and this one is also very readable. The hardback was published in 2010, and change continues apace, but this paperback has been updated to include recent developments. I recommend it to my students.
on 30 August 2010
If you want to find out what the state of modern book publishing is today then this is a good place to start. The book is thoroughly researched and will give you an overview of how things operate today in the paper-based industry: book fields with expert scouts; commissioning of books; keying, editing and printing; hardback and paperback; audio books and ebooks.
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.
It's an odd position for Amazon to sell a book that details the massive quandry and turmoil the book industry is in - then again, big corporations invest in anti-Capitalism documentaries because there's money in it, after all. It's fairly open about many of the issues facing the market, including amazon's blacklist and DRM on Ebooks, as well as the issues of pricing, formatting, bulk discounting, and perhaps, in my opinion, the industry's biggest shame which is Ripping Off The Talent. Ultimately, though, it's an engaing, occasionally dry read, that details an uncertain industry in ever changing times, and, if you have an interest in where Publishing is going, this provides a compass and a map as to the many futures it has.
Thompson's target audience appears to be people with a professional interest in book publishing, but it would be a pity if his occasionally dry style were to put off the more casual reader. In fact, anyone with an Amazon account might learn something from his analysis of the confused state in which the book world finds itself. Will publishing go the way of the music industry, or will it learn to adapt to new technology? Thought-provoking, to say the least...
on 14 October 2011
I'm an MSc Publishing student and this book was on my reading list - certainly one of the most interesting texts on my list, it's well written and not overloaded by statistics. Worth a read.
on 29 May 2014
Any author, agent, editor, publishing company CEO should purchase this book. I was not aware of all the details involved in publishing a book. This book is an excellent guidance to exactly how fiction and non-fiction books are produced and it has a nice although rather brief history of publishing.