More precisely, it’s more on the publishing industry as explicated by John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture. This is also a follow-up to a previous post that was based on the first half of Thompson’s book. I’ve now finished Merchants and found even more interesting things to ramble about.
Some observations from the book that were particularly noteworthy to me:
- BookScan, a service that tracks the number of sales for a book at various retail outlets and makes them available to any who subscribes including publishers, editors, agents, book buyers . . . etc, became available only in 2000-20001. Before this time, only the people personally involved with the publishing of a book had a good idea how well it sold. This means that agents who were marketing manuscripts to a new publisher were free to massage the truth of how well an author’s last book did on the market. In Thompson’s words, before BookScan, “[t]he track record of an author was a contestable variable that was known to some, surmised by others and always subject to exaggeration in the interests of inflating value”. (p. 197)
- Unsurprisingly, since BookScan came about, an author’s track record, by virtue of being much more visible and reliable, became a more important factor in the book business. Everything from whether an agent with accept a new (but previously published) author, whether a publishing house will buy a manuscript to how big an advance will be paid, how large the print run will be, and how much marketing will be set aside to push the book depend on an author’s past sales. What is more surprising about BookScan is how it favors never-published authors, at least over previously published, but poorly sold, writers. “. . . the author with no track is in some ways in a strong position . . . simply because there are no hard data to constrain the imagination, no disappointing sales figures to dampen hopes and temper expectations.” (p. 200)
- So what’s a published but not highly bought author to do? According to Thompson, some take the drastic step of changing their names, hoping to become, once again, the tabula rasa that somebody new to the field represents. I don’t see how this really works as I would’ve thought that publishing is an insular enough field so that somebody would know somebody who knows somebody who . . . can recognize the writer’s mug. In any case, may I suggest that anybody considering a new name don’t go for a one where a middle initial is needed to distinguish oneself from the dozen other published writers out there, e.g. not John B. Thompson?
- Customer loyalty to an author is strongest in the genre of commercial fiction, to be followed by literary fiction, and then non-fiction (p. 212). ’tis true — fickle I am.
Thompson dedicated one of last chapters of his book to the digital revolution in the publishing industry and contends that the revolution is much more in the process than in the product, i.e. digitization affects publishers’ operating systems, content management & digital workflow but has not produced a lot of e-books and revenues streams from these books. Perhaps not incidentally, none of Thompson’s books are available electronically. Not Merchants of Culture, not Books in the Digital Age, and none of the others. I’ve already clicked “Tell the Publisher! I’d like to read this book on Kindle” a bunch of times, and still nothing so far. Do you think this post, combined with the massive readership that I have on the blog, will change that all?