Written by John B. Thompson
Published by Polity Press, Cambridge
I have just read John Thompson’s review of the publishing industry world-wide and gained so much insight into an industry facing its greatest challenges since Gutenberg. Thompson examines economic and technological changes that are challenging those in publishing today as they move into the digital age. He dissects the roles of publishers, agents and booksellers and explains how their practises have shaped the industry as we find it today.
The economic recession and technological revolution have had a significant impact on trade publishing. Hard-copy sales have slumped and ebooks are expanding. Top-line revenue is in free-fall for the big publishing companies and their focus has had to change from a growth orientation to one of increasing efficiencies. The result has been cost-cutting through reorganisation or closure of divisions, freezing salaries, shedding positions,, slashed marketing budgets, consolidation in office space and cutting travel and entertainment expenses. Publishers now focus on the ‘big books’, those that they gamble to be bestsellers in what is known as ‘Extreme Publishing’. In an industry that demands profit and growth this is the only way to inject cash into their businesses. In the past, publishers grew by buying out other publishers to build their profitability. Today, this is no longer possible.
Thompson cautions that this approach has led to a decline in diversity in publishing output so that we are seeing homogenisation on content and an impoverishing of the culture of the book. Large publishing houses want ‘big book’s that are commercial, with celebrity and entertainment tie-ins which means that there is less room for literary fiction and serious non-fiction.
For authors, competitive auctions are diminishing, low or no advances are being paid, and higher royalties are only seen with ebooks. Agents are focussing on A-list authors, younger authors, and assertive, ambitious authors who aggressively build and promote their brands in the marketplace. Many authors are in a vicious down-hill sales spiral. They have been forced to turn to teaching would-be writers for their income. As sales fall agents and publishers decline their next book and they are in a sales history trap. Thompson notes that options are few and industry support is minimal. Some authors will find success with smaller publishing houses, others will have to completely re-invent themselves, perhaps by changing their name, changing their focus from fiction to non-fiction or by changing their career focus to teaching. Others will pursue the new technologies, following the digital path with new digital publishers, Apps or publishing independently.
This book is a fascinating look at the publishing industry and one I would highly recommend.