Merchants of Culture 2: Symbolic Capital

While John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture focuses on big trade publishing in the United States and United Kingdom, it provides helpful insight into a wider range of publishing endeavors. (See my first blog in the series here.) He begins with how publishers get things done. And all publishers, regardless of size or category, accomplish their work with five key resources:

  • Economic capital (good cash flow)
  • Human capital (good staff with “accumulated knowledge, skills and expertise”)
  • Social capital (good networks of relationships with authors, agents, suppliers and customers)
  • Intellectual capital (good control of good rights)
  • Symbolic capital (good brand/image)

Thompson says symbolic capital and economic capital are the most critical to competitive success. Publishers often deliberately seek to establish “a reputation for quality and reliability . . . that agents, retailers and even readers will be more inclined to trust. . . . A firm with small stocks of economic capital can succeed in building up substantial stocks of symbolic capital . . . in other words, it can punch above its weight.” (pp. 8-9)

Symbolic capital is at once the most intangible and the most interesting of the five. And every publisher knows how concretely it works. “William,” the publisher of a medium-sized house

described the case of a successful fiction writer he wanted to publish and who was being courted by a number of the big houses. “I wrote letters over a year and a half, two years, and sent her catalogues and books. And finally she agreed to sell us the books at a reasonable price, very fair. We’ve now sold over 300,000 copies of her books. But when I finally had dinner with her I said, ‘What persuaded you?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, I saw your catalogues and I liked the books. I thought what an interesting list. I’d be pleased to be, proud to be, part of this list.’” (pp. 176-77)

Sometimes quality books with little intrinsic economic value possess substantial symbolic value which leads (perhaps ironically, perhaps not) to economic capital.

Next installment: Making Available vs. Making Known.

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.