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Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson

This article was inspired by John B. Thompson's Merchants of Culture . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.

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Publishing for Success in the Twenty-First Century

“The difference between a big book and a bestseller is the difference between aspiration and reality.”

John B. Thompson, a professor of sociology, examined publishing in the British and US markets, and he has determined how these “merchants of culture” affect consumers and make money in a changing world. Publishing is affected by five factors- “economic, human, social, intellectual and symbolic capital.” Economic and symbolic capitals are the most important to publishers. The ability to compete with rival publishers and establish a positive reputation leads a publishing house to success.

Creative works travel up a service chain from authors to agents to editors to printers and finally to distributors. The method of distribution has varied over time. By 1951, sales had moved from specialty stores to department stores, with the latter making between 40% and 60% of book sales in the US. Following the 1960s, suburban life led to the creation of superstores in local malls. These giant distributors are still present today in the form of such giants as Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Hardcover books also increased in popularity. Between the 1970s and 2000s, the number of hardcopies sold increased by 16-20%. This success can be attributed to large discounts, as high as 40% off, and the adoption use of marketing strategies that worked for paperback companies, such as the use of attractive cover art.

In the 1990s, the publishing industry met with a new and useful form of marketing and distribution—the internet. Amazon and other online bookstores arose and offered easy access to titles traditional distributors could not provide.

Agents, another important aspect of publishing, have increased in number recently. Just between 2004 and 2008, the number of literary agents increased from 800 to 1000 in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Protecting the rights of prospective authors and simultaneously acting as talent scouts, agents now fulfill the role that once belonged to publishing house editors.

With companies in the entertainment business seeking material for such entities as television, film and radio, the absorption of independent publishers by larger corporations was catalyzed in the 1960s. Because of the large overhead, discounts for retailers and hefty advances for authors, corporate publishing usually does not produce high profit margins.

Large advances are especially risky, as book sales usually fail to recover as much as 85% of the advance.

Over 248,000 new books were published in 2007. By 2010 however, as many as 316,000 titles were released. Though publishers want bestsellers, they also have to release a wide range of titles in order to appeal to big booksellers and reduce the risks of failure. As one publisher has disclosed, the top 10% of their titles produced their greatest profit annually.

Generally, publishers allot a book six weeks to demonstrate its worth, and hold their inventory for no more than 12 weeks. Up and coming authors will have difficulty making it in the literary world, as celebrity nonfiction and the bestsellers of writers with previous success dominate the market.


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