Merchants of culture: A study of modern publishing

A study of modern publishing skips clichés about commercialisation to reveal a strategic game in which the balance of power is shifting.

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A few years ago, a literary blogger contacted me to request an interview about recent developments in publishing and reviewing. This was mildly flattering. The invitation to pontificate usually is. But while mulling over the questionnaire, I soon ran into difficulties. Many of the questions were more or less rhetorical - designed to elicit a certain kind of answer, usually on the assumption that I was a rather old-fashioned sort of literary intellectual, inclined to Luddism. Which is true, though only in certain moods; and anyway, who wants to be typecast?

I tried to play along. But one round of our discussion proved especially problematic. Wasn't it terrible (the interviewer asked) that we were losing the experience of direct contact between author and reader? That sort of communion was only possible with a traditional book. How would we ever recover it in the new environment of digital publishing - where reading was being corrupted by layers of technology and the intervention of middlemen?

Nothing in this line of enquiry was a surprise, exactly. Such an attitude is fairly common among literary people, and it is not hard to see where it comes from. The paper-and-ink book is a simple artefact, after all, and handling one may generate a certain feeling of intimacy. Yet all of this is illusion. The old-fashioned book is a piece of technology - one quite as plugged into vast, complex networks as any computer screen. Besides the machinery required for printing and distributing a given volume, there are intricate systems involved in acquiring manuscripts and preparing them for publication. And then there are the means through which books become known to the world - a set of convoluted processes called marketing, publicity and reviewing.

Very little of this is visible to the public. The feeling of "immediacy" between author and reader becomes possible only thanks to a long chain of mediations. So I tried to explain to the interviewer - though our exchange was never published. Perhaps the argument sounded too contrarian. The notion of the book always embedded in webs of technology and control is anti-romantic and hard to accept. "This is no book," Walt Whitman declaimed in Leaves of Grass; "who touches this, touches a man." And one learns not to argue with Walt Whitman.

The audience for John B Thompson's Merchants of Culture is bound to be small, then. His sociological analysis of the British and American publishing worlds is thorough and tough-minded, leaving the reader with a keen sense of many calculations of profit and risk are involved in the production of a given book. Even so, Merchants is not yet another cry of indignation at how publishing has become "commercialised." (That is like announcing that water has grown wet.) It is more useful to have a sober and precise description of how things actually work, which is what Thompson provides, drawing on extensive interviews with people working in all sectors and tiers of the industry.

Two basic concepts organise Thompson's abundance of detail: the value chain and the field. My comments to the blogger were, in effect, a very rough list of some of the links in the value chain - each of which "performs a task or function of producing the book and delivering it to the end user, and this contribution is something for which the publisher (or some other agent or organisation in the chain) is willing to pay."

This includes agents, editors, those involved in various phases of production, wholesalers, and warehousers (to give only an abbreviated list). The addition of value at each point contributes to the price of the finished book, of course - but that is too narrow a view of it. Each "link" is subject to changes in cost and efficiency, whether through technical innovation or aggressive efforts at cost-cutting. And such transformations in turn "shake the chain," so to speak; the effects ripple up and down its whole length.

Certain institutions controlling different stretches of the value chain - the literary agencies, publishing corporations, and bookstore chains - have enormous influence over what books reach a mass market. Thompson shows how, over recent decades, the growing influence of each has consolidated the power of the others. But that power is limited. Nobody is omniscient enough to be certain just what the public, in its inscrutable wisdom, will demand next. And the market, while highly diversified, is also limited. The overall demand for new books does not grow at anything like the rate of the publishing industry's overall capacity for producing them. Various links on the value chain may become more efficient or less costly. But the realisation of profit on a book is always a matter of calculated risk - based, in part, on running assessments of what other publishers are doing.

That state of tense mutual attention among publishers is what leads Thompson to define publishing as a "field" in the sense that term was used by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In his theory, an institution or cultural activity (the arts, education, journalism and so on) can be analysed as a field by treating it as something like a chessboard. Each piece has certain potential powers, but its possibility to act is also defined by its position relative to other pieces at a given time.

Each publishing house has a sense of the state of the game, and of what it might be able to do with its next move. There is a constant awareness, not just of one another's market shares, but of respective degrees of prestige and ability to attract desirable manuscripts from authors. The "value chain" involves bookkeeping, while the "field" is defined by a more complex logic - one in which the accumulation of information and symbolic power counts for more than strictly economic factors.

Such are the broadest outlines of Thompson's analysis - at least as reduced to the scale of a reviewer's sketchpad. But Merchants of Culture itself is crowded with detailed accounts of how the publishing industry has developed in the United States and Britain. It offers the best account I know of how the drive to produce "big books" - titles selling in large quantities during narrow windows of marketability - has had effects even on portions of the "field" far from immediate competition with the big presses. 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.

But it ends on an unexpected note. The economic downturn that began in 2008 has amplified the normal (indeed, structural) tension and uncertainty of publishing. "When it becomes much harder to play the game in the old way," Thompson writes, "even for those players whose dominant position in the field gives them all the advantages, then the doubts are more likely to surface… Economic turbulence gives rise to renewed questioning of the rules of the game and to new ventures that could, to some extent, change the rules."

These references are cryptic enough to be intriguing. Thompson points to an impending restructuring of the publishing field. He does not venture much by way of concrete prediction, though, apart from noting the almost certain expansion of online publishing and retailing - and the possibility that "some of the large corporations will probably decide that the time has come to divest themselves of their trade press interests, which were always a very small part of their overall business anyway."

But this could mean that the whole board is in play in some new way. And in that case, a savvy pawn may have better strategic possibilities than a cornered king. Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.