Professor John B. Thompson on the Transformation of Contemporary Trade Publishing

Professor John Thompson is honest about the fact that he is not a historian. Instead, he is a sociologist — he studies “the history of the present, and where we’re going.” His detailed yet succinct lecture, The Transformation of Contemporary Trade Publishing, framed what would perhaps seem like a static historical topic in a way that illuminated the dynamic, social nature of the state of publishing today. Indeed, not only did he shed light on the complex “cave system of the publishing industry,” as Dr Tom Mole mentioned in his introduction, he made compelling arguments about why that cave system is structured the way it is, how parts of it seem to be disintegrating, and why the future of the book is up for grabs.

At the center of Dr Thompson’s lecture was his concept of “the logic of the field.” Every field has a logic, though the players on the field may not be able to explain it to someone from outside the field; Thompson used the example of a fluent speaker of English not being able to explain the rules of the past participle when asked, despite being able to utilize the rule at will. Looking into the trade publishing world at first, he said it looked like chaos, like a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces that might not even all go to the same puzzle. However, through five years of in-depth interviews and research, he was finally able to see how the pieces fit together, forming the logic of the field.

In order to demonstrate this concept, Thompson briefly delved into some history, picking out what he considers to be three key developments in the world of Anglo-American publishing over the last forty to fifty years.

First, he detailed the changes in the market brought about by the growth of big retail chains such as Waterstones and Barnes and Noble. This growth devastated independent booksellers, and created a situation in which new methods of retail were applied to the selling of books, leading to what he called “the hardback revolution,” in which techniques previously reserved for selling mass market paperbacks were implemented in the sale of hardback books. This ultimately caused the financing of trade publishing to be turned on its head. Big bookselling chains have high stock turnover, which drives high return rates: roughly 30% of all books published are returned to the warehouse to be pulped.

The second development was the rise of the literary “super agent” in the 1980s. These super agents didn’t play by the traditional rules of author representation and often entered the job from fields outside publishing, such as law. Thompson used Andrew Wiley as the prime example of a super agent. Known for poaching authors from other publishing houses and not pulling any punches, Wiley became known as “the Jackal” within the industry. He was feared, loathed, but most importantly, respected — authors began to expect their agents to advocate just as fiercely on their behalf.

The final notable change, in the same vein as the retail chain development, was the emergence of mega-publishing corporations that bought up any smaller publishing houses that offered them competition. These corporations are, in turn, owned by huge conglomerates, who have their fingers in multiple media pies. This consolidation has led to the narrowing of the field to only four or five publishers, the Penguin-Random House merger being a recent example.

These three developments caused a huge upheaval in the world of publishing, which laid the groundwork for the current logic of the field. The field became polarized, with many small, independent publishers existing alongside a few huge publishers, but no publishers in the middle size bracket — this area benefits neither from the economy of scale used by large publishers, nor the economy of favors used by small publishers, and is therefore a difficult space to exist in. In addition, the book market is saturated; the conglomerates that own the large publishing companies are looking for yearly growth in their holdings, but how can that happen if the market is static, if not declining? This environment led to a shift in focus from publishing lots of books that may sell relatively well to publishing a few titles that sell more copies. These titles are known within the industry as Big Books.

Big Books are not guaranteed best sellers; lots of money and effort is poured into convincing the right people that the book will be Big, generating a buzz that will hopefully translate into sales. For this reason, publishers are encouraged to spend more on fewer titles rather than purchasing many titles at a lower price, particularly during the part of the publishing fiscal year when “the Gap” appears. The Gap is created by the collision of pressure from the publishers’ parent companies to grow and the method of budgeting employed by the publishers. Publishers look to fill the revenue gap by pushing Big Books through the system, becoming more and more reckless as the fiscal year comes to a close. This extreme publishing means that publishers don’t have a lot of patience for books that take too long to take off.

Perhaps the largest driving force behind the current logic of the field is the digital revolution, which seemed to take many publishers by surprise. While they easily implemented computers and digitization into their back ends, publishers were unable to predict the impact that digital reading would have on their bottom lines. Nonfiction ebooks, predicted to lead the way in digital publishing, lagged behind the stellar sales of fiction ebooks. Recent trends, however, seem to suggest a leveling off of the ebook market, though what will happen next is anyone’s guess.

Dr Thompson closed his seminar with a few cautious predictions about what’s next for the world of publishing. Amazon, he said, will continue to grow, while bricks and mortar booksellers will continue to decline, leading to the shrinking of physical browsing space, causing the fight for visibility to shift online. The pressure on publishers to grow will lead to further consolidation, and these companies will be forced to streamline and focus more on their bottom lines, which will be difficult in an environment of price deflation due to the devaluation of their content.

Thompson believes that the future of publishing will be a mixed ecology, a world where the most successful publishers will be the most adaptable to a changing environment. His lecture comes at a time of great worry and uncertainty in the world of books and publishing, but given his astute observations about the state of the business, I am inclined to trust his view of the future.

Professor John B. Thompson is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Jesus College.

Report by Allie Newman, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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