Publishing in the Twenty-First Century: An Interview With John B. Thompson | Trama Editorial

Publishing in the Twenty-First Century: An Interview With John B. Thompson

As the coordinator of Sundays at Sunny’s, one of New York City’s longest-running literary reading series, I have shot the breeze with hundreds of my fellow authors. Their most common complaint—hands down—is this: “My publicist/publisher doesn’t do anything for me.” Most writers harbor secret hopes that their books will become breakout best-sellers, and it can be quite a shock to find that works that required years or even decades of great effort often flicker into print, then disappear without a trace.
We writers experience our little corners of the publishing world, but the overall system often seems murky, if not downright impenetrable. If we had access to the bigger picture, we’d discover that the inadequate promotion and marketing of most books does not necessarily represent a failure of one publicist or publishing house. In fact, to borrow a saying from the world of computer programming, That’s not a bug—it’s a feature.
In his latest book, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, published last September by Polity Press, John B. Thompson elucidates the complexity of the book-publishing industry. A professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Thompson is one of very few writers and academics who have attempted to examine publishing in a truly multifaceted and comprehensive way. His study of academic publishing, Books in the Digital Age, was published in 2005. Merchants of Culture, a refreshingly accessible read, demystifies the world of general-interest trade publishing in the United States and in his home country.
As one of the subjects Thompson spoke to during his research, I decided to turn the tables and ask him about the big picture he had pieced together through literally hundreds of such interviews, and to see if he could explain what’s behind the distressing problem of scant marketing. We met in a café in New York City’s West Village.

What mission did you set out to accomplish in writing this book?
My aim was to try to understand the world of trade publishing: how it has changed since the 1960s, and how it’s changing today. How is it organized, and where is it going? The surprising thing was, when I began researching the book-publishing industry ten years ago, no one in academia had taken the subject seriously for about thirty years. It’s a world that is largely ignored by serious scholars. Many authors know little about it.
So I threw myself into this world; I immersed myself in it as an anthropologist would study a remote tribe in the South Pacific. I interviewed 280 people working in the industry of trade publishing in London and New York City—publishers and editors, people who work in the publishing houses, agents and booksellers, and authors. I was able to show that there is a very specific relationship among different forces and processes within the field that produces a certain dynamic. And all the players operate within the constraints of what I call the logic of the field.
I don’t think logic is the first word most people think of when it comes to publishing.
You’re right. Logic doesn’t mean that it is logical—that it’s reasonable or rational. It simply means that there is a set of forces and processes that shape what actors do. This field, which looks to the outsider like a chaotic mess, actually has a structure and a dynamic to it.
Let’s talk about what you learned.
In essence, there are three forces that have transformed the field of Anglo-American trade publishing since the 1960s.
First, there’s the growth of the retail chains. This is a hugely significant transformation that began with the mall stores in the 1960s and gathered pace in the 1980s with the rise of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other superstores. It had many crucial consequences, of which the decline of the independents is just one. But more important, it inverted the financial model of the industry, because in the 1940s and 1950s the paperback was really the financial foundation of trade publishing. The hardback industry existed to feed the paperback lines, and the paperback was the crucial revenue generator. The application of mass-marketing techniques to hardback books simply did not exist until the retail chains arose. From the 1980s on, the hardback became the financial foundation of trade publishing. The continued revolution on the retail side followed into the 1990s and into the 2000s with the rise of Amazon and the rise of the wholesale clubs.
There was a second crucial shift in the 1980s with the rise of the superagent, a new breed of agent whose defining characteristic was that he emerged from outside the field. The classic case is Morton Janklow, who was a lawyer. When he founded what is now Janklow & Nesbit, he did it purely by accident. An old college friend said, “I’ve written a book about Richard Nixon, and will you sell it for me?” Janklow didn’t know anything about publishing. He said, “Sure, I’ll do a favor for you.” He called half a dozen publishers and said, “Send me your contracts.” And he was shocked. He said, “I’m not going to let my friend sign these contracts. I’m going to rewrite them.”
The other key superagent is Andrew Wylie, who also didn’t have a background in publishing. He decided to set up a literary agency straight out of college. And he, again, took a very different view from traditional literary agents. He didn’t think his job was to mediate between the author and the publisher. He saw his job as being an advocate for authors’ interests, in a legalistic sense of the term. He was representing his clients’ interests, and he was going to maximize their returns.
Those two figures are the epitome of the superagent, and they transformed the field. They created a different breed of agent, and even those agents who despise them are nevertheless influenced by them.
The third development was the consolidation of publishing houses under the umbrella of large corporations. As the retail chains became more powerful, publishing houses had to strengthen their position so they could negotiate more effectively, and as the literary agents became more powerful, publishing houses had to get more powerful so they could compete for the most prized assets and contracts.
How did those three processes alter the world of publishing?
First, they produced a polarization of the field. When you look at it now, you see that there are a small number of large corporate groups, and a large number of very small indie presses. But there’s very little in between. It’s hardest to be a medium-sized publisher. You don’t have the economies of scale of the large corporations, which benefit from economies in sales and distribution, in the back-office systems, and so forth, and also have deep pockets they can dip into when competing for prized assets or authors. If you’re a small or medium-sized publisher, you simply can’t compete. Even if you have a book that becomes a surprise best-seller, you can’t hold on to that author.
The smaller presses benefit from something else, which is what I call the economy of favors. They don’t have the overheads of the medium-sized publishers, and they support one another—they help one another out. It’s a community that shares information and contacts. If you want to start your own company, you call another small publisher and say, “Where can I find a good designer?” or “How can I get good distribution?” Moreover, the freelancers upon whom they all depend operate a dual economy. When they work for a small indie press, they’ll charge one rate for a cover design; when they work for Random House, they’ll charge a completely different rate, maybe four or five times the amount. The freelancers share an empathy with what the indie presses are doing. The indie presses are able to flourish and survive, although they occupy a difficult place and they’re usually living hand to mouth, and many of them do go under; they’re very vulnerable. But they can flourish in a shared space.
The medium-sized publishers don’t have that shared space or those economies of scale. They’re extremely  vulnerable, and that’s why there are so few of them.
The second consequence of the polarization of the field is the preoccupation with big books. This is extremely important, and it stems from what I call the growth conundrum. If you’re part of a large corporation, you can’t remain static. Reporting to your shareholders, to your parent corporation, means that you have to grow about 10 percent every year. The conundrum is that you work in an industry that is largely static. How do they solve that problem? That’s what all the senior management grapple with.
One might think, “You just publish more books.” Indeed, some of them tried to do that a few years ago. In fact, that’s a false answer; it just makes your problems worse. If you’re a Random House, you’re dealing with several thousand books a year—several thousand new product lines. Your sales force is overwhelmed. It’s no good saying, “I want to publish a hundred more books.” They can’t cope.
All the corporations have come to the view that the way to solve this growth conundrum is to publish fewer books—but to publish those books that will sell more copies. These are what they call “big books.” They want to clear out that lower bit of midlist titles, to stop publishing them, and to focus more and more of their energy on big books. What is a big book? You might think that’s obvious: A big book is a best-seller. But that would be wrong, for the simple reason that big books exist before the book has ever been published—or even before it has been finished. It’s a hoped-for best-seller; it exists in the space of the possible. It’s nourished by hope and expectation. In the heart of the industry has developed a space for what I call the web of collective belief. A huge amount of energy goes into the process of persuading others that what you have in the form of an idea for a book, a proposal, or a draft manuscript, is going to be—in the future—a best-seller.
If you were in an industry where you created ten food products, you’d have a marketing plan for each of those ten products—you wouldn’t just put them on the shelves and hope people would wander into the store and find them. The idea that you would make things but not market them seems bizarre. But the publishing industry says, “We’re going to create ten products and market only a couple of them; for the others, we’ll just throw them out there and see how they do.”
Well, there is absolutely a process of prioritization, and it means that there’s a huge skewing of resources within the large corporations toward that relatively small proportion of books that they select out as big books, where they’ve made a big investment in terms of the advance. That small proportion of the list commands a large proportion of the marketing budget.
The idea is that those big books make up for the losses that the other books suffer.
It’s an industry based on serendipity. With the exception of the big-name authors, where you can predict sales relatively well, with many of the other new books you just don’t know how well they’re going to do. So you put a lot of resources behind the big books; sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, all the large houses allow for the “black swan,” for the possibility that some of those books that they didn’t put a lot of money behind might nevertheless turn out to be surprise best-sellers—like The Black Swan itself [by Nassim Nicholas Taleb], which was not a book that was heavily promoted. But the truth is that a relatively small proportion of the books that are published by the big houses do well. Roughly half will meet or exceed financial expectations, but the other half will fail to meet those expectations. About 30 percent will significantly exceed expectations, but only about 10 percent will really do enormously well.
Most authors are midlist authors who receive little support. From their point of view, there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system.
You’re right. The authors experience this logic in a very painful way—they experience a very alienating structure. This is an industry that is based on the growth conundrum and the need to solve that. You cut out the lower strata because that’s diverting your energies and your consolidated sales forces and so forth. It’s not a model that is aimed at cultivating the long-term careers of authors. It’s aimed at solving the growth conundrum.
In one sense, there’s a financial logic to the current model: It produces a certain amount of revenue that makes a company moderately profitable. Yet it’s a system that doesn’t work for most authors. Are there other models that might meet the needs of publishers and authors?
Of course there are. Even the medium-sized houses don’t have this same need to solve the growth conundrum. That doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally cut authors loose, but they are much more open to the cultivation of the long-term career. Look at Dan Brown: He was a midlist writer; his books were not doing terribly well until there was a breakout book that made the fortunes of Doubleday and Random House for a number of years. Only if you are prepared to stand by authors do you open up the possibility of that happening. The large publishers are dominated by short-termist mentalities foisted upon them by the fact that they’re owned by large corporations that demand unrealistic levels of growth and profitability for this field. Most of the smart people who work in the industry know and understand this. They have to play the game, but it’s not a game they want to play.
In the music and movie industries, the fact that you can digitally copy and share files has created major problems. That hasn’t really happened in the book industry, that people are pirating e-books. Why not?
It is happening. There are plenty of sites where you can find books uploaded. There’s a sort of subculture of book pirating online. Many of the big publishers are constantly scrutinizing the Web, trying to find illicit versions of Harry Potter or Dan Brown books or whatever it might be. If they find them, they threaten legal action. Piracy does exist and the industry is very worried about it. Publishers have tried to deal with it by DRM [digital rights management]. They wrap a DRM envelope around the digital files before they sell them. That doesn’t stop pirated editions from appearing, because it’s easy enough to scan a book and put the files up.
Do you sense that there’s less panic about this in the book industry than in the music industry?
Probably, but there’s plenty of anxiety about it, which is why the DRM issue has been so sensitive. One of the complaints that readers have is that you can buy an e-book on your Kindle but you can’t share it the way you can a physical book. How you protect digital files is a big issue in the industry. There’s a great fear that once you put stuff out there digitally, it will become freely circulating and you will be unable to monetize it.
The other big anxiety—maybe the foremost one in the minds of those in the industry—is price deflation. When you have big technology companies like Amazon and Google and Apple involved in the creative industries, they tend to use content as a means to drive their market share and to drive the sales of their hardware. For them, content is cannon fodder, almost, in their struggle to become dominant players in the technology and retail markets. For the content creators, which are authors and publishers, this means that you run the risk that your content is being devalued: Content is being used to fight another battle. So what you see is very aggressive action on the part of retailers and technology companies to price content cheaply. The classic example is, of course, the Kindle. When Amazon launched  the Kindle, they announced—to the surprise of all the publishers—that New York Times best-sellers were going to be sold for $9.99. As we know, they were losing money on every copy they were selling, but they were doing it because they wanted to send a message that the value of a book, of that content, is really under $10—just like the “value” of a song from iTunes was 99¢.
Publishers responded by saying, “That’s not the value of it. That’s what you want to price it at in order to persuade consumers to buy the Kindle to increase your market share in the retail sector. But you’re losing money on every copy you’re selling, and that can’t go on forever. There comes a certain point where you’ve got it in people’s minds that the value is $9.99—then you’re going to come back to us and say, ‘I’m sorry but we’re not going to pay you whatever we were paying you for this content anymore, so you’re going to have to lower your prices.’” There’s a hemorrhaging of value out of the industry, which is exactly what happened in the music industry. That is the great danger that the publishing industry now faces, and it has consequences for authors. If the content is valued more cheaply, then authors will get less too. In my view, this is not good for the industry. Everyone—authors, agents, publishers—needs to stand up and defend the value of his content. It’s not easy writing a book. It takes a long time; it’s not easy producing a book beautifully and marketing it well, making people pay attention to it. You can’t devalue it to the point where you’re not able to remunerate the creative players.
People talk about this technological revolution as if it’s inevitable, as if the changes are inherent in the technology, rather than the result of decisions being made by people.
Absolutely. It’s what I call the technological fallacy—that technology is somehow the driving force of change. You see this so much in commentaries on these industries. So many of the people who are writing about the book industry are basically technophiles. They love technology; they think the publishing industry is a dinosaur and that it’s all going to be swept aside by these fancy new gadgets. What they miss is that publishing is a complex field of actors and players and agents who are human beings actively involved in content—and that readers are human beings who have their own tastes and preferences. Technology isn’t just an independent variable that drives through all that come hell or high water. It’s part of a complex social process.
The truth is that we’re in the middle of a revolution, and no one knows what its outcome is going to be. No one. There are lots of people who will tell you with great confidence that e-books are going to sweep aside books, and in fifteen or twenty years there will be no physical books, and others who’ll tell you that they’ll be 50 percent of the market, and others who will say 20 percent…all this is pure speculation. The death of the book-publishing industry has been wrongly foretold many times. I think we’re going to see a very complex metamorphosis of the field, in which print books and e-books are going to live alongside each other. I don’t think you’re going to have a swing from one extreme to the other, a situation in which print books survive only as collector’s items, like the vinyl LP. Too many people love the physicality of the book, and they see it as a work of art and an object that they value and can share with others. I don’t think that’s going to go away. But I think you’re going to have certain types of book content that are going to be read increasingly by means of reading devices of one kind or another, especially the kind of book that people don’t want to collect as an object but really want its content available as cheaply as possible, to be able to read it and move on to the next one. I think that frontlist commercial fiction, romance—genres of that kind—will probably see growing electronic sales, whereas other areas of publishing may be very resistant. I don’t think there’s going to be a simple transition from one medium to another, as if we’re just going to replace print with e-books.
Because of the technology, it’s relatively easy for an author to “publish” a book by putting it online in such a way that it’s directly accessible to readers. Theoretically, an author can cut out editors, agents, and the whole publishing industry. What are those players doing to hold on to their power?
There’s a very big difference between “publishing” in the sense of making something publicly available, on the one hand, and publishing in the sense of getting readers to notice it, read it, buy it, discuss it, and so on. Any author can post anything online, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is going to pay attention to it. That’s where the role of publishers remains absolutely vital—they play a fundamental role in bringing content to the attention of others, of publicizing it, of marketing it.
There are other functions of publishers that remain crucial. One is the traditional role of publishers as the creditors of last resort. Basically, they’re the only ones who take a risk with content and put up the money. Who is going to pay you to write a book, who’s going to give you an advance or pay other players to publicize it, and so on? Yes, you can get rid of that, but then Stephen King is not going to get an advance—he’s simply going to have to take the risk that he can put his content up and other people will find it. He may be successful because he’s already resting on the shoulders of publishers who have done all that for him for a number of years; but if no one knows who you are, then you’re going to have to try to make your voice heard out there all on your own. No one is going to help you, to give you any money to do it; there’ll be no advance to write the book. That’s what the publisher does, and that’s not going to go away.
Gabriel Cohen’s six books include the novel The Ninth Step, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2010. He is also a freelance journalist and essayist, and teaches a class called How to Build a Writer’s Life at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.
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