Books I’m Reading

I’m in the process of uploading John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century onto my brain. At the same time, I want to download elements of the book into a blog post. This endeavor means I have to pick out some aspect of the work about which I want to blab; with Thompson’s book, this step has proved difficult due to the proverbial embarrassment of riches.

Merchants of Culture is a introductory text to the publishing industry. It’s chock full of interesting factoids about the business that can constitute a stand-alone post. For instance,

  • Book translation is mostly a 1-way street: translations happen from English into other languages, hardly ever the other way around. Thompson writes,  “More than half of all books translated globally are from English language originals, whereas only 6 per cent of translations go from all other languages into English.” (p. 13)
  • The standard commission literary agencies take for the work they do on behalf of authors is 15% (p. 65). This 15% is then split in various ways between the literary agents and the agencies in which they work — “anything from a modest 20 or 30 per cent to incentivize a junior agent . . . to 50:50, 60:40 or even, in the case of the more experienced agents 80:20” (p. 79).
  • The ubiquity of agents is a 15-year old phenomenon. “In the 1970s and before, an agent was an optional extra for a writer . . . By the late 1990s, however, an agent was a necessity . . . [M]ost of the major houses in New York and London will no longer accept submissions from authors who don’t have agents, and if they do get submissions from unagented authors . . . they will usually suggest to the author that they get an agent.”
  • The dominant publishing houses in the US are ranked in the following order (p.116):
    1. Random House (13.1% of US trade market)
    2. Penguin (10.5%)
    3. HarperCollins (9.4%)
    4. Simon & Schuster (7.6%)
    5. Hachette Book Group USA (5.3%)

    I’m surprised that Simon & Schuster is 4th on this list. Due to this publishing house’s overwhelming concentration in the US, I had assumed it was a much bigger force, coming up right behind Random House. Well, live & learn.

  • Some industry-speak: “platform” is the metaphorical podium on which authors stand on to sell their books. It refers to “those traits and accomplishments of the author that establish a pre-existing audience for their work, and that a bpulisher can leverage in the attempt to find a market for their book.” (p. 86) “Comp” is comparable good books to the book under discussion. Thompson writes, “Identifying  comparable titles is essentially an exercise in building best-case scenarios by analogy . . . citing comparable books is a way of putting a positive gloss on a new book, getting potential buyers to think of it in terms of another books (or other books) whose eye-watering sales figures are available to everyone” It’s similar to the pitch academic articles make in their “Literature Review” sections where they situate the current work in relation to the existing body of knowledge. In the case of academic publishing as well, it makes sense to only to point out how one’s paper contributes to other notable works, not to other flopping failures.

Factoids aside, Merchants of Culture is blog-notable for being written by an academic based in the UK — Thompson is a professor of Sociology at Cambridge — and published by an academic press with a strong interest in trade/commercial works — Polity.  As such, it’s a fine specimen of two recent developments in book publishing. These developments are globalized publishing ventures (I’m now reading this book in the fog-free environment of southern California), and (more interesting for being new to me), the incursion of academic presses into trade publishing. According to Thompson (p. 181-186), academic presses were attracted to general interest trade publishing starting in the late 1980s due to three factors: a) the decline of scholarly monograph sales, b) the decline in interest big commercial publishing houses have for publishing the “mid list”, or books that sell less than 10,000 copies, and c) the rise of retail chains who wanted more books to stock their stores. Basically, the story is that academic presses use the cast-offs from b) to substitute for a), while relying on c) to sell b). As for the book being produced abroad and then imported into the US, this may turn out to be very problematic since a recent court ruling in the case of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Supap Kirtsaeng may mean that US libraries cannot lend out such books.

As a material object, Thompson’s book is deserves mention for looking something like this

Chapters start on the left!

That’s right! There are chapters in the book that start on the left/back/verso page. Doesn’t that look odd? I suppose it’s a space saving device, but it’s also a great reminder that books carry conventions of which we’re not usually aware because we’re so awfully used to them. It’s only when the conventions are violated that they become visible.

Lastly . . . well, lastly, I’m only half way through this book, and I already have a couple more things I want to say in relation to it. I should carry this embarrassment of riches over to another post, shouldn’t I?

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