Andrewh's Reviews > Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson
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's review
Jun 13, 12

Read from April 26 to June 13, 2012

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 examination of the weird and wonderful world of trade publishing - a bizarre industry based on the decisions of just a few elite editors and agents, but dominated, as stated here, essentially on the 'web of collective belief' rather than any proven methodology; other than doing again (and again, and again) what other people have already done successfully in the past, it is really just serendipity much of the time, it is implied here (if you work in a spreadsheet-driven environment, however, you may find this mystical subjectivity all rather charming). The familiar tale of the consolidation of the industry, the rise of the big-name authors (and their evil offspring, the big name agents), and the rise of the oligopolistic booksellers (B&N, Borders) is told well, as is the later, and more critical, rise of the all-consuming Amazon, but the book feels in great need of revision as the ebook section already feels slightly dated. One sentence hit the mark about publishing as a corporate industry: how do you manage the expectation for constant growth in an essentially flat, or even declining, market?

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