John B. Thompson’s recent account of the publishing industry, Merchants of Culture begins with a fantastic anecdote about the $6.75 million advance paid to a not very well known professor of computer science, Randy Pausch. He had been invited to take part in ‘The Last Lecture’ series at Carnegie Mellon, only his lecture had a particular poignancy as he was suffering, at 46, from a fatal illness. A journalist from the Wall Street Journal heard about the lecture on the grapevine and attended it. A short piece on the lecture accompanied by a video clip was picked up by a breakfast TV show, and then by Oprah, and before you could say ruthless sentimentality, publishers were bidding for book rights and a war ensued. Is this behaviour irrational or not, Thompson asks? Could a short 180 page book whose buzz was based on a dying author ever prove to be worth so much money? This tale illustrates the strange and perplexing situation in a troubled industry that begs the question of what’s got into publishing these days and how can it justify its decisions?
Thompson, a Cambridge academic, spent 2005-2009 conducting 280 interviews in the UK and the USA with industry professionals from every sector of the trade book world. His book offers a comprehensive account of commercial publishing as it currently exists, with a few chapters towards the end on the possible future it may have. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but it is all so interesting and provocative that I have to share some of the material with you. What I appreciate about this book is that it has been written by someone outside the industry, which is to say, someone without a vested interest or a series of self-justifications to make. It quickly becomes clear how useful such a perspective may be as the trade publishing world is split into a number of different fields, all of whom cooperate and compete over the value of the written word.
Part of the trouble with publishing is how complex its chain of organisation has become, from the author to the agent to the publisher to the printer to the distributor, the wholesaler and eventually the sales outlet, each stage of a book’s journey becomes a station of the cross where value can be added, but also friction, obstacles and complications. Not that Thompson puts it this way – he is being rigorously fair. But he does point out that at the heart of this sprawling industry, and what draws it all together, is a ‘web of collective belief’. In other words, for a book to make it onto the shelves of a library of a bookstore, all those disparate individuals involved in the process have to believe that it has inherent worth. Fine, except of course that no one understands why some books sell and others don’t, and so that all-important belief system can produce the emperor’s new clothes as easily as it can produce a genuine bestseller. A book never reaches publication on its own; instead it requires a dream that gets dreamed collectively, an alchemical mix of aspiration, hope, luck and cunning that far transcends its banal verbal incarnation.
One myth that Thompson quickly debunks is that publishing has been a dying industry for many years. In fact, it seems that we have been in a golden age despite the relentless carping of the media. Thompson begins his story with the rise of the retail chains, describing how book selling moved from small, amateur independents to the huge professional bookselling chains of Barnes & Noble, Borders and Waterstones, as well as the FMCG world of the supermarkets. Much was lost in terms of customer service when the independents were broken by the big stores, but much was gained in terms of units shifted. The chains provided hundreds of bookstores across the country, each able to hold a huge stock, and the result was lots and lots of book buying. One thing I didn’t realise was how important the hardback book became again. Savvy marketing techniques and discount pricing meant that hardbacks suddenly became popular once more:
‘In the 1970s, a book that sold 500,000 copies in hardcover would have been a huge success, practically unheard of in the industry. Thirty years later, an equivalent success would be in the region of 8-10 million copies – that is, around 20 times greater. In the early 2000s, hardcover sales in excess of a million copies were not unusual, and new books by brand name authors often sold more than this. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, first published in 2003, had sold more than 18 million copies in hardcover in the US alone by 2006 – albeit exceptional, hardcover sales figures of this magnitude were simply unimaginable in earlier decades.’
There were several consequences of this – on the one hand, publishers embarked joyfully on vertical integration; no longer would there be separate hardback and paperback publishers, and this led to the huge publishing conglomerates of the contemporary book world. On the other hand, the power of mass marketing techniques became apparent and revered. So, such factors tend toward a small number of publishers, trying to figure out which handful of books will sell in the millions, and donating the majority of their marketing clout towards them. At the same time those bookstores with their promotions and dumpbins began to sell increasingly along the lines of other entertainment products – music in particular – where what was new was placed in prominent position, and the backlist was suitably reduced. Once again the consequence is that hundreds of books are published every year, thousands are theoretically available, but consumers end up with the same old titles being thrust before their eyes wherever they go.
You can hardly blame editors and agents for wanting somewhat desperately to reproduce the success of books like The Da Vinci Code, when there is clearly so much money to be made from them (although the number of Dan Brown-alikes I saw in the supermarket this afternoon is not really forgiveable). But it does all make for a homongenization of the book world, where the same, or the related, looks a better bet than the new and eccentric.
The other chapter I read today was about the ever increasing power of the agent, who is the real decisive force, I think, in the marketplace. One of the problems with publishing is that it is the publishing house that takes all the risk, but reader loyalty lies with the author, not the publisher. I don’t wonder what the new Random House titles are, I wonder whether one of my favourite writers has a new book out. Unsurprisingly, then, it became clear as the book market expanded that authors needed someone on their side when it came to dealing with publishers. Plus, after all those publishing mergers, the editors who remained in their jobs had a ton more work to do, and there were a lot of publishing professionals kicking around, out of a job. Many of them became agents because they had the industry knowledge and networking contacts so necessary to the role. The consequence of this was the push towards bigger and bigger advances, in the belief that the more a company paid for a book, the more likely it was to actually market it, and the creation of another level of complex hierarchy. The ‘best’ agents have the greatest chance of getting their authors into print, those lower down the food chain have to scurry about kowtowing to the great and the good and bolstering their contact lists.
One of the myths that comes up time and again is that editors don’t edit work, or at least not enough. My experience of the book industry, and what seems clear from reading this book, is that there is way too much editing going on. Any author these days has to rewrite their work endlessly for the pleasure of an agent, and then for the editor of the publishing house, and possibly several more times in between for sister agencies and editors in other countries. That web of collective belief contains so many people, all of whom have an opinion. But what you end up with is books produced by committee. This is not a good thing. Plus, the system inevitably generates a quasi-mythic set of rules and regulations about what is selling at any one time, based essentially on the personal preferences of editors and agents at the top of the chain. So books are thoroughly beaten into submission – literally – moulded time and again into the right fashionable shape.
Thompson is far kinder to publishers than I am being here – the information is his, the critique is mostly mine. And to be fair, we do have a rich and still vibrant publishing industry (those heralding its demise have always been very wrong so far), but it is flawed down the middle by the fact that no one knows what makes a book good. It seems to me all the problems stem from there. But I have a lot more to read still – I’ll let you know how it goes.