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

Article excerpt

Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010. 432 pp. $25 pbk.

For many younger J&MCQ readers, books in their traditional form are fast becoming a feature of the past. You (and you know who you are) use your iPad or other reading device, and hardly ever set foot in bricks-and-mortar bookshops anymore. You are gazing at Internet and other screens for hours on end.

The older among us (your reviewer being one) still enjoy an old fashioned book - even a heavy, hardbound one. We've built considerable collections over the years, often going back to titles we need or appreciated when we first read them.

Thompson's study of trade book publishing (fiction and non-fiction intended for general readers) in Britain and the United States tells both reading groups what is happening to the business that produces their electronic and "real" books. Focusing on developments over the past dozen years or so, he relates the story of a veritable revolution as familiar companies disappear in mergers, editors end up on the street, and new authors struggle to be heard.

A sociologist at Cambridge University with a prior study of the industry to his credit, Thompson makes clear he is not dealing here with the more specialized parts of the business - academic books, texts, reference books, or the el-hi (elementary and high school) markets, which are often quite different.

For a business that produces books, publishing has been subject to remarkably little book-length analysis itself - at least not any available to general and interested readers. For not only is it hard to keep up with the changes in companies and their ownership, but it's often difficult to discern real trends (as opposed to fads) in this business. …

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