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Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

3.77  ·  Rating Details ·  468 Ratings  ·  85 Reviews
These are turbulent times in the world of book publishing. For nearly five centuries the methods and practices of book publishing remained largely unchanged, but at the dawn of the twenty-first century the industry finds itself faced with perhaps the greatest challenges since Gutenberg. A combination of economic pressures and technological change is forcing publishers to a ...more
Paperback, First Edition, 464 pages
Published March 16th 2012 by Polity Press (first published September 22nd 2010)
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Patrick Brown
Jan 17, 2012 Patrick Brown rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've worked in the book business, on and off, since 2000, but I've never worked for a publisher (unless you count my own brief foray into publishing, which I'd imagine is as similar to working for a major publisher as fly fishing in an Idaho stream is to working on an industrial fishing boat off the coast of Norway). I've learned something of how they operate by working in bookstores and then working here at Goodreads, but it's an outsider's view. So I came to this book wanting to know more abou ...more
Apr 25, 2012 Dan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Pretty comprehensive view of the publishing industry today. I kind of wish I would've read a digital copy only because that would've lent itself to instant updates, which would've meant a synopsis of the DOJ's antitrust suit against the publishers and Apple, but I'm not sure that Thompson has actually examined that, or that he is actively keeping Merchants of Culture up to date aside from the occasional new edition. Overall, it was a really well-written and informative study of an industry I fin ...more
Julie Bozza
Publishing is a bloody tough business, and this good hard look at trade publishing explains a lot about why. These days, just about anyone can publish in the sense of creating a book and making it available. As Thompson cogently points out, "But to publish something in the sense of making a book known to the public, visible to them and attracting a sufficient quantum of their attention to encourage them to buy the book and perhaps even to read it, is extremely difficult."

Thompson explores trade
Craig Hodges
An immensely satisfying and stimulating read. There is more light shed on the world of English-language trade publishing in this one book than any other I have encountered so far.

In each chapter Thompson provides up-to-date insights and analysis of the various 'publishing fields' with a keen eye on the all important relational perspective. Throughout Thompson engages industry insiders and calls forth examples to help readers make sense the 'book supply chain' starting from the author and agent
Karin Slaughter
Sep 05, 2015 Karin Slaughter rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Anyone who is not in the business of publishing (or trying to get in) will likely find this a bit tedious, but if you are in the business, or want to be, I think this is an important book to read.
Aug 26, 2014 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I keep coming back to this book, realizing I'll never finish it. Oh, I've read it all (actually portions of it several times), but it's time to take it off the list even though it's not off my mind.

In a nutshell, this should be required reading for anyone who aspirations to publish books, or to agent books, or to work in the publishing world in any shape, form, or fashion. Why? Because it describes why the quirky and usually inscrutable publishing world behaves as does and values what it values
Andrew Brozyna
Feb 24, 2014 Andrew Brozyna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-publishing
Using insider interviews and a wealth of research, the author examines the interconnected roles of parent corporations, publishing executives and staff, literary agents and authors, and book sellers.

Book publishing is full of seemingly illogical business practices: Why would an author be paid a huge advance when the publisher knows the book will lose money? Why would an editor encourage an unrepresented author to hire a literary agent when that's sure to reduce the publisher's profit? Why would
Phil Simon
May 14, 2012 Phil Simon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business
I read this book with considerable interest given what I do for a living. If you want to understand the history of publishing and why its future is in doubt, buy this book and read it.
Dec 27, 2016 Priscilla rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is probably the most useful book I've read in 2016. Great.
Wens Tan
Oct 01, 2011 Wens Tan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-history
Fascinating look into the structures and agents in the field of publishing in the last century. Love the way the author highlighted details that reveal the nuances in the agents' interactions.
Jul 31, 2011 Ben rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An enormous amount has been written, both online and in print, about the publishing industry in recent years – some of it perceptive; a little (a very little) well-informed; much of it complete rubbish, ranging from the ignorant to the merely opinionated.

The vast majority of this body of commentary has one common factor: its authors have a relationship with the industry, whether as insiders (publishers, agents, authors, booksellers) or as outsiders (mostly self-published authors). That is to say
Jan 23, 2017 Hannah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: studieboeken
Great book that summarizes the important influences on the trade book market in the USA and UK. It's a comprehensive study, written in clear language. Must read for everyone who's interested in the English publishing field.
Read for a class, really helpful and informative.
Mike Violano
Merchants of Culture, which attempts to document the transformative changes at play in trade book publishing in the US and UK, is a dry and bit academic view of what is moving and shaking publishing houses and changing the roles of key players especially agents and booksellers. The challenge in assessing the early 21st century of publishing is like trying to capture a picture of a speeding train...not easy and unfortunately hard to get in focus.
The book business is racked by constant change and
Apr 26, 2012 Andrewh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book, written by an academic with close affiliations to a publisher (but which one?), is basically an ethnographic study of the trade publishing industry, with a touch of Bourdieu's field theory thrown in for good measure (but only really mentioned in passing, as if to give a figleaf of academic justification to the research). Based on 500 hours of interviews with 280 people in the industry, from editors, agents and booksellers to (per-lease!) authors, it is a well-written and forensic exam ...more
So, here's the deal: I'm incredibly interested in the publishing industry. Partly because I love books (duh), partly because the industry is somewhat of a logistical enigma, and -- yes, I admit -- partly because I dreamed of somehow carving out a living in New York City as an editorial assistant on a measly $35,000 per year (I don't even think this is possible, at least not for me).

The book itself was unfortunately dry and heavy with quantitative data, which made it difficult for me to read desp
Jan 23, 2011 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: publishing, 2015
Overall, a good recent history of how trade publishing has changed in the last four decades. Thompson brings together the different forces within the industry today to explain how they are changing trade publishing. The book covers the change in bookselling, the rise of agents, the demands of corporate ownership, and the change in reading habits. Thompson relies on several interviews with publishing professionals to supplement the data that he was able to find. The fact that he got as much infor ...more
Jun 07, 2013 Rachel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Though I've worked in the publishing industry for many years, I've never been a trade book editor, and the trade side of publishing is what Thompson focuses on. Though the book is a couple of years old, it still is relevant to what is happening today. Unfortunately, the book doesn't cover recent developments such as the Apple-DOJ case, the rise of self-publishing, the closure of Borders, and the merger of Random House and Penguin. But the major themes he teases out are the seismic shifts that st ...more
Jul 20, 2013 Alicia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very clear, comprehensive overview of trade publishing as it stands in the UK and US markets in the 21st century. This book takes a fairly impartial, disinterested perspective of an industry that is continuously being squeezed by increasingly difficult external and internal commercial circumstances, and profoundly affected by changing perceptions of the economic, symbolic and cultural value of books and book cultures. Many of these insights I felt were quite applicable to the Australian publis ...more
A harrowing must-read for those in the publishing industry. But also an important one that is well-written and draws on an impressive body of research (e.g. tons of interviews with people in the business--albeit none that are actually on the record). In particular, Thompson does an excellent job of providing specific schema or threads or trends that explain the state of the publishing business. He also grounds his analysis in sociological and cultural studies theory but doesn't get overly theore ...more
Nov 18, 2010 Marc rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent book for anyone interested in today's publishing industry. Thompson traces the current state of publishing back to the rise of literary agents about four decades ago, then examines the ways in which giant book retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble changed the face of book selling. Towards the end of the book, he examines the e-book phenomenon and offers some speculation regarding the ways in which new technology will continue to affect the book world.

For a full revie
I had to read this book for a class called, "Context of Writing." The class discussed the different elements of the publishing chain: author, agent, publisher, retailer. This book, written in 2010 and updated in 2012, covered both the US and the UK markets rather thoroughly, with lots of inside information from unnamed executives at the publishing houses.

Although some of the facts are a little dated since the book was last updated two years ago, this book was an interesting read. It didn't come
Lauren Albert
Feb 09, 2014 Lauren Albert rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was an excellent discussion of the publishing industry which covered the major changes over the years--the corporatization of the business, the rise of agents, the growth of the retail chains and the polarization of the field. He discusses ebooks and while it is slightly dated (which is inevitable), it is not as dated as it could have been. He is pretty savvy about the way things are moving without seeing inevitability anywhere. He points out that different types of books tend different way ...more
Dec 22, 2011 Emily rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic! An excellent overview of the trade publishing industry in the US and UK. Very thorough, and full of interviews (many anonymous) with people involved in all aspects of the publishing industry. Thompson's emphasis is on the way the industry has changed over the past few decades (rise of literary agents, changes in retailers, and growing divide between large and small publishers) and by doing that he makes the current state of the industry easier to understand.

A little out of date as far
Darran Mclaughlin
Nov 20, 2011 Darran Mclaughlin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british, business
This an excellent, objective account of the trade publishing industry in the UK and the USA. There are few industries that the media and the general public are as interested in but almost everything you ever read about it is either completely ill informed or written from a very partisan point of view. Thompson researched his subject for 5 years and gained access to industry insiders including publishers, retailers, agents and writers and he has written the definitive book on the subject. As some ...more
Jan 23, 2016 Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: college-reads
This book was intense. I will never say that it was bad. For a college-read, I liked it. It does give you a lot of background into the literary publishing business. The only drawbacks are that it sometimes just gives way too many numbers that you don't need and doesn't exactly hit hard on how you market the book. By which, I mean it doesn't exactly give you the information that you would get in a marketing class/ textbook. I think it would have reached that 5/5 star rating if it helped with that ...more
Mar 07, 2012 Steven rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a fledgling indie publisher I needed a crash course on the dynmaics of the publishing industry. I found this book to be a comprehensive analysis of the publishing industry. John B Thompson gives an erudite account of how trade publishing got to where it is today and a lucid explanation of what he calls 'the logic of the field'- the dynamics that exist between small and large publishers, agents, writers, readers, suppliers, sellers and changes in technology. A very readable account. I now feel ...more
Brian Swain
Jul 21, 2011 Brian Swain rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It took me a long time to get through this because it's pretty dry and clinical stuff. It's a very detailed overview of the American and British trade publishing industries and it's filled with insight into what it takes to get a book published and sold these days. Every facet of the industry is explored, including detailed assessments of the future as it's being formed by electronic publishing, print-on-demand, and assorted other forms of evolution currently taking place. If you're interested i ...more
Leigh Thomas
John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture looks at today’s publishing industry, examining where it has come from and where it might be headed. Zooming in on various aspects of publishing, both print and digital, as well as the many roles that come into play, Thompson brings detailed perspectives to an industry in transition. While the information is thorough and relevant, Thompson gets down to business and offers little use of narrative anecdotes or added intrigue, making this book one I would onl ...more
This book blends cultural analysis and economic sociology to understand broad changes and trends in trade publishing. The introduction gives a very lucid and accessible application of Bourdieu's concepts of the field and cultural/symbolic capital to help us understand what is at stake. Much of what follows is fairly dry. I wish I had selected his other volume, about academic and educational publishing, because the volatility there applies more directly to my own professional interests. But all i ...more
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“Good publishers – as one former publisher aptly put it – are market-makers in a world where it is attention, not content, that is scarce.” 2 likes
“Few industries have had their death foretold more frequently than the book publishing industry, and yet somehow, miraculously, it seems to have survived them all – at least till now.” 0 likes
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