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Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson

March 16, 2012 | No Comments

Occasionally good stuff arrives unbidden. Yesterday, a copy of John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, landed (literally) on my doorstep. I picked it up, started reading, and have been dipping into it ever since. I missed the first edition of his survey of the publishing industry (released in 2010 in the UK), but this paperback issue includes updated data and revisions of the chapters on the digital revolution and current flux within the trade. Perhaps it’s appeal harks back to my days at business school, and my fondness for powerpoint graphics and deconstructing profit models. The sections on the rise of the literary agent (who knew the first one was a Scot?) and the emergence of the ‘big book’ are essential (if depressing) reading for wordsmiths, and Thompson is skillful at clarifying jargon, such as this definition of hype versus buzz: “Hype is the talking up of books by those who have an interest in generating excitement about them, like agents: buzz exists when the recipients of hype respond with affirmative talk backed up by money. Hype is liking fishing with the most attractive fly you can find…. buzz happens when you start to catch fish...” He also explains how Bookscan, the sales-tracking technology, became a noose around authors’ necks, because “if your first book disappoints, and the second one tanks, you’re in trouble…” 
This is the most concise and informative source I’ve found so far on how our industry works, and I highly recommend it to book readers and, heaven help us, ‘book makers,’ those of us scribbling away at the front end of this supply chain. It’s a comfort to know, according to senior editors interviewed by Thompson, that when evaluating a manuscript it all boils down to voice. Though, given that a senior editor at a large imprint “may only buy 8-12 books per year, and that those books would expect to ship between 20,000 to 50,000 copies and at least one of which could be expected to do much better....”, such comfort is teeny-tiny small. In the chapter “Trouble in the Trade,” Thompson tracks the impact of the industry’s obsession with growth, and how most writers, he says, are still remarkably naive about business, marketing and publicity. Writers tend to be introverted, he believes, and only socialize with other writers, so, suddenly, they can be shocked to find themselves without an agent or an editor or a publisher, “cut loose” because “their books, however good they might be, are not displaying the upward sales curve (the publishers) want to see.” Writers, Thompson argues, pay the “human costs of an industry where numbers rule in the end.” This book can educate us about that industry, so if, or when, we are blindsided, we will know, at least, what hit us. (Merchants of Culture, published by Plume – Penguin Group – will be released on 27th March)

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