Jim Cullen: Review of John B. Thompson's "Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century" (2nd, ed., 2012)





Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

John B. Thompson begins this book with a publishing anecdote that will be familiar even to those on the margins of the business: the story of how Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, gave a talk in 2007 as part of a series at the university with the title "The Last Lecture." As it turned out, Pausch was dying of pancreatic cancer, giving his well-received presentation an element of poignance that generated a wave of national publicity. What proved truly stunning, however, was how eager New York publishers were to acquire the book that became The Last Lecture: Pausch, a first-time big-time author was paid a $6.75 million advance by Hyperion, a Disney company. How could that possibly make sense?

In 400 chiseled pages, Thompson explains why such an offer came about, and why it made sense -- indeed, The Last Lecture proved to be a lucrative acquisition for Hyperion. He does so with the the methodological acumen of the sociologist he is (at the University of Cambridge). Thompson conducted hundreds of interviews for Merchants of Culture, supplemented by new interviews with many of his sources for this newly released second edition of the book (the first was published in 2010). Much of Thompson's analysis builds on that of his 2005 book Books in the Digital Age, which focused on scholarly publishing. Here he focuses on trade publishing, the hyper-commercial industry focused in New York and London.

It's in the nature of any project of this sort that it stands to date quickly. But Thompson has done a notably good job of keeping his findings timely -- the figures here run into mid-2011, capturing the arrival of the e-book transformation of the industry at that moment it shifted from an abstract possibility to an increasingly evident reality. In some sense, however, the book feels fresh and up-to-date because of an intuitive grasp of temporal proportion; his perspective dates back to the corporate consolidation of the publishing industry in the 1970s, and he traces trends that in many cases have been decades in the making.

The organizational strategy for Merchants of Culture consists of chapters focused on key constituencies in the industry: on on the rise (and decline) of retail chains; the growing power of literary agents; the consolidation of publishing houses; and so on. He also takes note of what is now an established trend of a blockbuster mentality so typical of the major media, along with emerging ones like "extreme publishing" (quickly-produced books designed to plug gaps in financial projections) and the "hidden revolution" in the manufacture and distribution of books. Naturally, he gives plenty of space to major players like Amazon.com, and the transformational role of the Kindle -- with attention to both those who celebrate as well as fear its power.

Thompson has a measured tone, and his goal here is clearly to explain how the field -- a term he identifies as a conceptual construct within sociology -- interlocks in ways that may not always be obvious to an outsider. He does, however, weigh in with some mild-mannered judgments. Thompson thinks a corporate mentality erodes the long-term attention to backlists that are crucial to the ecology of the industry. He notes that big-time publishers like Random House and HarperCollins, unwilling to tend backlists, have instead been buying them by acquiring other imprints, a strategy that has come close to running its course. He sees a polarization in the industry: business conditions are most propitious for behemoths with deep pockets or scrappy little houses, some of them academic players that run a trade operation on a shoestring. But he notes there's precious little ground for medium-sized houses like Farrar, Straus & Giroux (which leverage prestige and typically federate to maximize back-office resources). Thompson is also attentive to the fact that publishing can be most brutal not to first-time writers, but rather those who establish a track record that is found wanting and who must then struggle to survive in an increasingly indifferent field.

As someone who has worked in publishing as well as published books with trade, academic, and specialty publishers, I must say I have never encountered a work as incisive and complete as Merchants of Culture. This one will surely be a backlist perennial, and must reading for anyone with a stake in the business.


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