MERCHANTS OF CULTURE by John B. Thompson

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in the brooklyn rail, a great interview with sociologist john b. thompson on his latest book — a synthesis of five years of research studying the slowly and reluctantly transforming trade book biz.

thompson posits a few interrelated  forces eviscerating the publishing business: the teetering economies of the big chain stores; the increasing power and prominence of literary agents; consequences of the ongoing digital revolution; and the consolidation of publishing houses into public companies who, while in a relatively plateaued industry, are forced to seek bottom-line growth. but while these forces have been elaborated on elsewhere, thompson’s carefully considered analysis is refreshingly absent of both chicken little squawk and futurist drool.

some favorite bits:

Rail: So the change in publishing is certainly more complex than the chat that “e–books are destroying traditional publishing?”

Thompson: Absolutely. The publishing industry is in trouble—but not just because of the digital revolution. The real trouble for the publishing industry, in my view, has more to do with the gradual unfolding of this economic transformation that led to this structure of publishing, where we now have five large corporate groups and a small number of retail chains dominating the industry. These corporations have to achieve growth year on year, and when that top line revenue begins to fall, as it did when the 2008 economic recession suddenly tipped the narrow profit margins into the red, it has devastating impact throughout and the only way that they can preserve the profit at the bottom line is to push people out, and to reduce their overheads and costs dramatically. You don’t see this in the small houses but the big corporations respond quickly, immediately, because their absolute priority is to protect that bottom line profitability, which they have to report to their corporate bosses. And so that was the real crisis in the publishing industry in the autumn of 2008 to the present. Now, it also happened to be conjoined with an upsurge in e–book sales. Kindle had been introduced in 2007, the Sony Reader a year before that, and there was some impact from these before the recession. But as you moved into 2009, commentators and observers of the industry were seeing that the only thing that had an upward movement in the book publishing industry were e–book sales. Now, of course, that’s misleading because, still, 95 percent of the revenues in the industry are coming from physical book sales. It’s just that the only thing that is growing are e–book sales, so everyone focuses their attention on that and says the “revolution” or the “crisis” of the book publishing industry is about e–books, and that’s not the case actually.

Rail: So it’s largely a media ownership issue.

and

Rail: But will e–books become more of a norm as time goes on?

Thompson: There’s no consensus on this issue. I interviewed many, many key players in the digital divisions of all the large publishing houses, as well as the medium and small size publishing houses and everyone is very interested in this topic but everyone has a different opinion about what will happen in the future. Some believe that it will sweep aside the printed book and the printed book will become a relic of the past that you find only on the bookshelves of collectors. Whereas there are others who say it will plateau at some level. Some say it’s going to be 10 percent of readers, others say it’s going to be 20 percent, others 50 percent. Everyone has a different opinion on the matter. My own view is that what we will see is a differentiation of the marketplace. Readers and consumers have many different values, and beliefs, and preferences and you will see some be very happy to read on electronic devices of one kind or another. Others will remain wedded to print on paper and will want books in that form. There are deeply embedded cultural practices around writing and reading and these are not going to change quickly and easily. There are people who believe that technology sweeps all before it, and that technology is really the driving force of social change. I don’t take that view. I regard that as a technological fallacy—the view that technology is a driving force of social change. I think technologies are always embedded in social, cultural context and what technologies get taken up depends on a variety of factors that shape people’s practices and beliefs. There are many examples of technologies that went nowhere. You remember the great CD–ROM fiasco? In the late 1980s all publishers thought that the future of books was the CD–ROM. A lot of money was invested; publishers set up whole units developing CD–ROM technology and then it disappeared. It just didn’t go anywhere largely because it wasn’t very useful. So technology doesn’t produce results in and by itself.

read the whole at: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2010/11/express/is-publishing-doomed-john-b-thompson-with-williams-cole

a review in the UK’s Times Higher Education: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=413351

pick it up from the library.

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