Merchants of Culture 1: Merchant of Candor

When reading John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, those of us who have been in publishing thirty-five or twenty-five or even fifteen years will feel like we are reading our own biography. This is history we’ve lived through and a present reality we know all too well.

A key virtue of the book is Thompson’s

i-d5cd819bf3910ee28bca26fd88143e70-Merchants of Culture.jpg

ability to get publishers, editors, authors and agents to speak frankly (though anonymously), such as:

A retired publisher:

[Profit and loss statements are] a total fabrication, on top of which nobody looks at them . . . I’m supposed to justify the $50,000 advance. So I’m supposed to know how many copies we’re going to print, how many pictures we’re going to have, what paper’s going to cost, what the price of a book is going to be, and most important, how good it is. Well, it’s clearly a wank—there’s no way that any possible person can do it. And so you say to your assistant, “We’re spending $50,000. Work up figures that make sense and stick them in.” Everybody knows they’re lies. (p. 131)

The publisher of a medium-sized house:

The large [publishing] groups will write off between 5 and 8 per cent of net revenues in unearned author advances each year. (p. 176)

A director of a university press:

Most of our advances are around $10,000. (p. 184)

The CEO of a large publishing corporation in New York:

As a rough rule of thumb . . . I would say that fifteen or twenty years ago the author and the publisher were much closer to splitting the revenue after costs of producing a title at 50:50. Now it’s much more like 75:25, or even 80:20 in favour of the author. (p. 215)

A marketing manager:

Advertising does not sell books . . . . Good old-fashioned word of mouth remains the cornerstone of the marketing effort. (pp. 246-47)

Thompson himself is equally candid about the apparently dysfunctional patterns of the publishing business, as typified by, for example,

  • The growing number of titles published as shelf-space shrivels
  • The huge advances offered to unknown, unproven authors
  • The shrinking window in which to promote a book often resulting in huge returns

As Thompson writes:

To describe this dynamic as the “logic of the field” is not to say that the field is logical—there is much about this dynamic that could be regarded as illogical, irrational and inefficient, not to mention wasteful. “It’s a system that sort of feeds on itself,” reflected one agent who, having been in the business for over 50 years, was inclined to take a long-term view. “And it’s a form of evolution. Though in this particular instance there is no intelligent design.” (p. 293)

Next installment: Symbolic Capital.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.