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the Complete Review
the complete review - publishing / business

Merchants of Culture

John B. Thompson

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To purchase Merchants of Culture

Title: Merchants of Culture
Author: John B. Thompson
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 403 pages
Availability: Merchants of Culture - US
Merchants of Culture - UK
Merchants of Culture - Canada
Merchants of Culture - India
  • The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very solid, substantial, readable

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National . 15/10/2010 Scott McLemee
The NY Rev. of Books . 10/2/2011 Jason Epstein
Times Higher Ed. . 9/9/2010 Katharine Reeve
TLS . 23/2/2011 Paul Duguid

  From the Reviews:
  • "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. (...) Merchants of Culture itself is crowded with detailed accounts of how the publishing industry has developed in the United States and Britain. (...) 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." - Scott McLemee, The National

  • "This impressively comprehensive and revealing analysis of the structures and processes of modern publishing is timely as the industry faces its digital future. (...) There is much here of interest to authors, whom Thompson sees as too naive about the very industry on which their careers depend." - Katharine Reeve, Times Higher Education

  • "Although 2010 was declared to be yet another breakthrough Christmas for the ebook, Thompson shows a trade in awe far less of Apple and Amazon than of Costco and Tesco, which still have a much larger market share than online retailers." - Paul Duguid, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Merchants of Culture is sub-titled The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, and does indeed offer a good state-of-the-industry overview (at least for the first decade of the century; it seems likely that much of the business will change dramatically over the course of the rest of the century).
       John B. Thompson looks at the transformation of the (trade) publishing business in the US and UK in recent years -- in chapters chronicling 'The Growth of the Retail Chain', 'The Rise of Literary Agents', and 'The Emergence of Publishing Corporations' -- as well as the repercussions of these changes on different facets of publishing and book-selling. He tries to offer a picture of the whole industry, ranging from the big conglomerate-owned publishers to small independents and non-profits, and explains the hierarchies among publishers, agents, and retailers, and the different approaches and tactics depending on where players sit in these hierarchies (non-profit publishers v. trade-giants; new v. well-established agents, independent v. chain stores, for example). Much of the information is conveyed in what amount to short case studies as well as interview-quotes (though annoyingly many of the companies and individuals are not identified, or are given pseudonyms), offering good insight into everyday practices and situations; particularly interesting are the different perspectives of the different actors on specific issues and problems.
       Thompson is also able to chart the rise of the 'big books'-culture -- publishers and retailers focused on mega-selling blockbusters -- well, showing why larger publishers are pushed towards seeking them out (and how this has lend to the decline of midlist titles). He finds the squeeze on publishers' margins has different causes in the US and UK, with rising advances in the former and escalating discounts in the latter; the explanation of the British post-Net Book Agreement world, where supermarkets and the like get enormous discounts, is particularly disturbing. (The pressure Amazon exerts, especially, on smaller publishers re. discounting, both in the US and UK, is, however, not discussed, one of the few major omissions in the book.)
       The full-blown e-book explosion -- as I write this Amazon just announced that their sales of Kindle e-books has surpassed their sales of books in all traditional printed form -- only happened after Merchants of Culture was published in late-2010, so in the book Thompson still suggests the verdict is not yet in on e-books; that no longer appears to be true (the question now being: just how fast and big will the displacement of print by digital be ? (with the subsidiary question: will e-books actually displace print books, or will they expand the market (or some combination of both ...) ?)). Nevertheless, the chapter on 'The Digital Revolution' is thorough and useful, almost everything that is discussed here remaining relevant even where not entirely up-to-date (such as, say, about the Google Library Project settlement -- which, he noted when he wrote, might not stand up in court (as, indeed, it did not)).
       Among the reasons why this book can be strongly recommended to any and all involved in the publishing business is because, as Thompson shows, ignorance about aspects of the business as a whole clearly affects players who only bother with their small role in it (and such ignorance seems to be widespread). Most obviously, authors really should have a better idea of what is going on: he offers a particularly sad case-study of an author who did not remain adequately involved in the process -- fatal in this day and age, even when things (and sales) seem to be going along well. He points out stunning failures, such as the fact that American independent booksellers are entitled to co-op payments, but often do not seek them out (or aren't aware they're entitled ...) -- good money and marketing opportunity that is simply not taken advantage of (and apparently there's a lot of cash involved: he quotes someone as saying the money set aside for co-op payments (but which remains unclaimed) is "the largest hit to the bottom line at the end of the year for publishers").
       Thompson does a good job of showing cause-and-(often-unintended-)effect throughout the industry -- from the writing to the last stages of selling -- and anyone involved in the business would do well to be aware of just how these things work (especially since they often don't work in a particularly sensible or logical way ...). Cash-flow cycles, 'gap books', and digital rights management might not sound like tremendously interesting topics to some readers, but given the impact they and much else that Thompson discusses have it's worth being aware of them and that impact.
       Thompson shows how the industry in the US and UK has been transformed in recent decades, and offers a good analysis of the consequences. Change continues to be rapid (and turbulent): he mentions the difficulties the retailer Borders has had, and it has since collapsed, while in the few months since the book went to press the trade e-book market has clearly finally exploded, and so the future is certainly uncertain. For now, however, Merchants of Culture offers a good foundation for understanding where the industry is (and how it got itself in this mess there).
       While much here will be familiar to anyone involved in any aspect of publishing, Merchants of Culture is nevertheless recommended because of how it presents the big picture, connecting all the parts of the industry -- which everyone involved should be aware of. Thompson presents the material well, too, and the book is far from academically dry -- a good read, even.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 May 2011

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Merchants of Culture: Reviews: John B. Thompson: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John B. Thompson teaches at Cambridge.

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© 2011-2022 the complete review

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