One year ago I interviewed John B. Thompson in the Rail about the state of the publishing industry. Thompson is a Cambridge University sociology professor, and his 2010 book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century was the result of more than five years of talking to editors, publishers, writers, and agents in the U.S. and the U.K. about the rapid changes in the traditional structures of book publishing. Given that these transformations have only continued, I thought it worth checking in with Thompson a year on. An updated second edition of Merchants of Culture will be published in March by Penguin (U.S.) and Polity (U.K.).
Williams Cole (Rail): It’s been a year since we last spoke. How would you characterize the state of publishing?
John B. Thompson: Uncertain. There are two major developments that are having a profound effect on the publishing industry today and that are creating a situation of deep uncertainty about the future. The first is the continuing economic crisis that has metamorphosed since then into a deeper and more pervasive recession and that has created a tough economic climate for publishers and booksellers. Retailers are often operating on tight margins and reduce their liabilities by ordering less and stocking more cautiously. Booksellers will return more books to publishers in order to reduce the amount of capital tied up in unsold stock. But even these measures may be insufficient as many retailers have been and will be forced out of business. And when retailers close, publishers lose shop windows to display their books and are faced with substantial write-offs for bad debts. This further depresses profit margins that were already under pressure from static or declining sales. It’s an economic snowball effect.
Rail: And the second development?
Thompson: Well, it’s the intensification of a surge in e-book sales, especially in the U.S. While physical book sales are static or declining for most publishers, e-book sales are surging ahead—it is one of the only areas today where trade publishers are seeing serious growth. And the growth is startling: For most U.S. trade publishers e-books accounted for 1 percent or less of overall revenue in 2008. In 2011 the figure is likely to be between 18 and 22 percent (possibly even higher for some houses). And, interestingly, the biggest shift from print to digital has been in commercial fiction, especially genre fiction like romance, science fiction, mystery, and thriller. For fiction as a whole, e-books accounted for around 40 percent of overall sales for some large trade houses by mid-2011. But in some categories of genre fiction and for some authors the percentages were even higher—60 percent for some categories like romance, and even up to 80 percent for some authors. Narrative non-fiction has also seen a significant but smaller shift to digital. Anything more complicated—such as books that use color, like art books or children’s books—has so far lagged far behind. This change is already forcing the key players in publishing to reconsider their positions. Practices that have become settled conventions in the field are suddenly opened up to scrutiny, and players who have interacted amicably for years suddenly find themselves locking horns in new conflicts where the rules are no longer clear (as happened, for example, when Random House and Andrew Wylie clashed over Wylie’s decision to launch Odyssey Editions). To what extent the game of trade publishing will actually be transformed by this development remains, at this stage, unclear. Much will depend on how quickly and effectively the key players are able to adapt to the new information environment that is emerging around them. We are living through a revolution of sorts, and one of the few things you can say for certain about a revolution is that when you’re in the middle of one, you have no idea where and when it will end.
Rail: So, what about the closure of the Borders retail book chain? What are the ripple effects?
Thompson: The bankruptcy of Borders was more than the end of a major bookseller—it was the end of an era. For three decades, the world of trade publishing in the U.S. had been shaped by the long-running rivalry between Barnes & Noble and Borders, where two book retail giants opened more and more superstores in the major urban centers across America and filled them with thousands upon thousands of books. With the collapse of Borders, this era is now over and it will never return. Barnes & Noble is still a major bookseller and there are other smaller chains and many independents. But the profound changes currently taking place in the retail marketplace will pose major challenges for all the brick-and-mortar bookstores. They have long faced serious competition from online retailers like Amazon and from mass merchandisers and that competition will continue to grow. But they now also face the very real threat that a growing proportion of book sales will be realized as e-books—bypassing the physical bookstores altogether.
Rail: How will this affect the role of books in our culture?
Thompson: Well, the closure of more bookstores may leave some communities without bookstores at all and that may have a further depressive effect on sales. It also matters because it affects the visibility of books in our culture and the ways in which books are discovered. Many readers discover new books by browsing in bookstores. The bookstore is a place of discovery as much as a retail outlet. Of course, this place of discovery is not a free-for-all—it is a highly structured space in which publishers buy visibility for their books with placement on the tables, shelves, and windows at the front of the store. But it is, nonetheless, a space in which readers can come across books that they didn’t know about or plan to buy and read. With the decline of this physical space of discovery, the industry is going to have to invent new ways of bringing books—especially new books by new authors who have not yet become recognizable names—to the attention of readers. Undoubtedly much of this will have to happen in the online environment. But it is by no means clear at this stage whether the process of discovery can be transferred to the online world without loss.
Rail: So what is the advantage of an author publishing with a traditional house these days?
Thompson: While there are small- to medium-sized houses that have often been more experimental than traditional houses, with the growth of the Internet, the explosion of self-publishing, and the offering of publishing services by major retailers like Amazon, there are many more opportunities today for authors to bypass traditional publishers altogether. So what can these houses offer that a self-publishing service cannot? Two things. First, the traditional large houses, and many small- to medium-sized publishers too, are willing to pay advances to authors in a way that most self-publishing services are not. Advances are declining for many authors in the current economic climate (and are non-existent for some). But for many writers an advance, however modest, is crucial for enabling them to carve out the time and space to write. Second, a traditional house that is doing its job properly is not simply making a book available—it is helping to create a market for the book in the way that it promotes and publicizes it. Today, it is easier than it has ever been to make one’s work available—all you have to do is upload a file onto a website and allow others to download it at will. But this only highlights the fact that the real problem today is not availability, it is visibility and demand. It is getting others to know that your work exists and getting them to believe that it is sufficiently important for them to buy it and read it.
Rail: And that is certainly harder for a house without resources but certainly not impossible.
Thompson: Our information environment is changing in fundamental ways. But good publishers today—whether focusing on bound books or e-books, whether large or small—are what good publishers always were: They are market makers in a world where it is attention, not content, that is scarce. Not all publishers are equally good at creating markets for books, but those who are will continue to offer a valuable service to both authors and readers. They will play an important role in the new value chains that will emerge in the wake of one of the great communications revolutions of our time.