Positively Third Avenue

A Review of John B. Thompson's Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

John B. Thompson's excellent book, Merchants of Culture, subtitled The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, brought to mind many images both from this, the twenty-first, and from the last century, when I began my career as a publisher working for commercial houses.

Although my experience in trade publishing proper spanned only four years—beginning in late 1988 and extending through late 1992 at The Free Press, and Merchants of Culture is expressly about trade publishing—it made me think of nothing so much as a certain day in 1981 when I was in college publishing in New York. Having spent the first nine years of my career in the college department of the then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, I experienced two big events that same day: the bound galleys of the first-ever book I had signed and published as an editor, Anthony Giddens's Sociology: A Brief but Critical Introduction, arrived in my office, on the eleventh floor of the HBJ building at Forty-Eighth Street and Third Avenue, just as the furniture movers were removing all the contents of my office to ship to Harcourt's new building in San Diego, California. I said hello to the book as I said goodbye to my file cabinet. Following Harcourt's momentous move, I would soon be leaving my Third Avenue digs, but, for the record, my journey west ended not in California but crosstown at McGraw-Hill, then on Forty-Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue, New York City, far short of the Golden State.


I made the mental connection between moving day at Harcourt and Merchants of Culture because this book is concerned with publishing (trade publishing, specifically) as an industry, and it was on that day in 1981 that I became most acutely aware of publishing not as a beloved business that I happened to have become part of a decade before, but as an industry—one with a strategic organization, a culture of beliefs, an institutional substructure, a technological motor, a labor market, and an economy (to say nothing of a deal with the Morgan Manhattan moving company). The wave of corporate concentration and restructuring in the publishing industry that commenced then, in the early eighties, and continues to this day is an important sub-story in Thompson's book, in which he deftly deploys his scholarly acumen to illuminate "the logic of the field" as it has evolved since 1960.

Beginning with the improbable account of how the late Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture evolved from a talk delivered in Pittsburgh into a runaway best-selling book, Thompson adopts Pierre Bourdieu's field theory to try to expose the logic of this industry at once rocked by change and riddled by myth, folk wisdom, and misunderstanding, but still able to deliver on the seemingly magical acts represented by the publication of works such as The Last Lecture.

In his introduction, Thompson provides an elegant account of trade publishing as a field (not merely a market), demonstrating how the heavily networked players draw on various forms of capital—social, human, economic, intellectual, and symbolic—to conduct their business. He then situates trade publishing within the supply and value chains of its economy—the "cultural economy of the book"—while explaining the various functions trade houses perform. Beyond basic functions such as content acquisition, financial investment and risk taking, management and coordination, and sales and marketing, Thompson zeros in on what might have eluded a less prescient observer. Quoting a former publisher, he notes the following: "Good publishers...are market-makers in a world where it is attention, not content, that is scarce."

What follows in the body of the book feels to me a lot more like strategic analysis à la Michael Porter's Harvard than cultural ethnography emanating from Bourdieu's Paris, but both analytical techniques are at work in the unfolding. (Is "strategic ethnography" a genre? Maybe it should be.) Drawing on both strategic analysis and ethnographic acuity, Thompson explains how a number of factors have come to define the field of trade publishing, and have made it what it is today. The earliest sign indicating the distinctiveness of this analysis is that Thompson begins the book not inside a publishing firm, but rather in the world beyond it, describing the role of the big retail chains and that of literary agents in defining the field. For as we are to learn later, and repeatedly, these two interlinked factors have had dramatic effects on trade publishers—the chains, by expanding the market first for mass-market paperbacks and then for hardbacks, and agents, by managing access to writers on whom publishers depend for the acquisition of content. Taken together (but in varying ways in the United States and United Kingdom, the dual research sites of Thompson's study), these two singular forces have helped concentrate the industry and driven publishers' margins downward, even as the number of books published and the revenues generated by the trade have increased.

Following his description of these two major forces in defining the field, Thompson takes us inside trade houses, showing how the business has grown more concentrated over the last half century, first through synergy, then through economies of scale, and how this concentration has shaped power relations within firms, while also creating space for medium-sized and small firms, each variety struggling to succeed within its own space, given the ecological constraints of the field.

Other factors come into play as we learn about the inevitable importance of the "big book" in filling a space defined by a highly concentrated handful of chains (and later by online merchants); by "extreme publishing" necessitated by corporate publishers compelled to fill the gap between their own budget projections and the revenue targets imposed by their owners; and the dramatic growth of co-op advertising and online marketing and publicity in gaining access to the attention of readers in an oversupplied marketplace where publishers are competing with greater numbers of books, to say nothing of other cultural products. Thompson finishes his description of the field with an excellent chapter on the rise of the digital marketplace and the threats and opportunities it brings with it, though he is wise enough to stop short of predicting what the future holds in this rapidly transforming realm. However, he does claim that the book as an art form and medium of communication will endure despite the shocks being delivered by technological sea change.

One comes away from Thompson's account with the sense that this is an author who has true affection and admiration for the field (he is, in a sense, part of his own subject, in that he has long been a principal of Polity Press, the British-based scholarly book publisher). He is clear and resolute in dispelling as myth the idea that no good publishing goes on in the big firms run by corporations, but equally quick to caution that the concentration of the field into too few channels of distribution (as occasioned notably in the United Kingdom by the demise in the mid-1990s of the Net Book Agreement) has had damaging effects, creating an unfortunate and unwelcome homogeneity in the kinds of books that get wide distribution.

What is there to be learned from Merchants of Culture? Well, some thirty years following that day in 1981 when the arrival of my first book at Harcourt coincided with the departure of my office furniture, I've moved slightly further west both on the globe (to New Jersey) and in the field, to a position at its border within a university press. For a twenty-first-century university press publisher, Thompson provides a three-part lesson.

For the first part, he supplies an extremely useful tutorial in thinking about book publishing as a field, a kind of gravitational ecology in which there are few gains to be made without at least a few sacrifices. As economists would put it, there are no free lunches. Thompson systematizes this for us. He gives us a new and useful style of thinking.

Second, by providing such a careful historical and empirical anatomy of the business, he presents a sobering X-ray of the factors that impinge on our publishing, as well as that of the trade. In his one mention of university presses he explains how a certain subset of us have stepped in to fill the breach in trade publishing created by the concentration of the industry, which has made us attractive publishers for mainly academic authors who might have opted for commercial houses a generation ago. Fair enough. But his account of the risks entailed in competing for sales in such a heavily concentrated marketplace reinforces what most of us university press publishers already know: that trade publishing is hardly a panacea for the challenges we face as scholarly publishers (and that Thompson details in his earlier work, Books in the Digital Age). Any university press publisher who has published two or more trade books and lived through the disappointment of failed publicity or an avalanche of returns or the red ink spilled across unearned advances knows too well that trade publishing, while in some respects attractive, is not the cure for what ails us. It is simply one of a number of strategies we must pursue in diversifying our own scholarly publishing portfolios in order to continue to thrive, and in which we must keep our eyes open.

Thompson's third and final lesson for us in our activities as university presses and as publishers is more hopeful than the zero-sum maneuvers we learn by studying the ecology of the field: we should remain positive and resourceful in our outlook. The quotation above, "Good publishers...are market-makers in a world where it is attention, not content, that is scarce..." is a useful watch phrase. It is our capacity to see what another fine scholar, Ronald Burt, describes as the "structural holes" in our respective disciplines, and to perceive these openings in the scholarly landscape as opportunities for new books, that inspires us as publishers.

When as editors we succeed in the act of publishing a successful book, we tend to want to credit ourselves with being "creative." In fact, more often than not, we are just being smart—acting wisely on our knowledge of the evolving structure of our fields. Becoming more aware of the fact that we work in fields that, for all their apparent messiness, have a certain order and structure, is a mark of intellectual maturity and competence. It is also a lesson reinforced by the methodological discipline and intellectual passion John Thompson brings to Merchants of Culture, a gift for those of us working to publish books that will matter to readers and to posterity, regardless of where in the field we practice our craft.

Peter Dougherty
Director, Princeton University Press