John B. Thompson
Merchants of Culture
I don’t belong to this book’s intended public, but what with its interesting title, nice cover design and promising first few pages (“Click to look inside”, you know), I ended up buying it anyway. I read it, too, but that wouldn’t matter so much to its publishers.
Merchants of Culture is a study, by a sociogist, of the world of trade book publishing in the UK and US: literary agents, editors, sales people, marketing people, retailers, etc.: why they interact the way they do, and what factors are impacting their decisions.
Thompson interviewed a lot of these people about their role, how it has evolved, what matters to them, and how they feel about the publishing industry as a whole. Based on his thus acquired understanding he describes in this book what he calls “the logic of the field”. So the intended audience is really: anyone involved in the publishing industry, and maybe some other sociologists interested in “field” descriptions.
I was struck by the inordinate amount of attention given to money — by the interviewees, and therefore by Thompson. These merchants of culture have a palpable concern with being a successful merchant. Their concern with disseminating culture is not always so apparent.
Literary agents, for example, come out as “sharks” who are ever more concerned with securing ever greater advance payments for the authors they represent — and, working on comission, for themselves. Their attention therefore goes out to “big books”: books with the potential to become a bestseller. Pity for all those books of sound quality that are not perceived as “big”.
Publishers, meanwhile, have been playing the game of mergers and acquisitions. There are now only six major publishers left in the US and UK (recently down to five), several of which have themselves been bought up by big corporations. Corporate culture pervades the minds of publishers: what counts is the year-over-year growth of the bottom line. Lucky are those imprints that have enough symbolic capital to retain their independence and their cultural identity.
Small independent publishers are also continuously worried about money, or more precisely: about day to day survival of the business. But these people do have very strong culture-related values, and those typically are their main motivation for being in the business.
Big retail chains — Barnes & Noble, Waterstone’s, Amazon — and increasingly also supermarkets represent an ever greater proportion of total book sales. A well-known result is the demise of small independent bookstores. Another is, again, an increased focus on bestsellers (which is all that supermarkets will display), and on hit charts.
This book is quite engaging, and as such I find it a pity that it focuses only on publishers and not on the publishing business from A to Z. Roles like authors, printers, typesetters, designers, distributors, and small independent bookshop owners do make appearances, but only to the extent that they matter to a publisher. Having an outsider’s perspective on those roles would have been interesting.
Thompson writes very redundantly. Every new idea or piece of information is first introduced, then worked out in more detail, and explained once more through a quoted interview fragment. While this makes reading a lot easier (simply because there’s less new information to process with each new sentence), it also means that the book could easily have been half as long. Either way, I did remain interested throughout.
Since it’s a work of sociology, Thompson mostly just reports his findings, with a scientist’s detachment. But he also finishes with his personal take on what he saw as worrisome trends: the short-termism that goes with year-to-year growth concerns, the damaged careers that result from a disinterested industry, a loss of diversity associated with consolidation of the publishing business as well as the retail outlets. The evil ways of money…