An Expert Speaks: YPG Sits Down with John B. Thompson to Discuss the Ins and Outs of the Industry

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This article was contributed by YPG member Maree Hamilton. If you are a YPG member and would like to contribute articles on publishing-related topics for our site, please contact Tara Powers at

John B. Thompson is a professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge who specializes in contemporary social and political theory, sociology of the media and modern culture, and the social organization of the media industries—among other areas of expertise. He is the author of Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), and most recently, The Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Polity, 2010; Penguin, 2012). On a humid Wednesday morning, he and I discussed books, writing, the publishing industry, and what it means to be in the middle of a technological revolution.


Maree Hamilton: I was particularly interested, especially as I was reading the book, how you came to write it. I know that you wrote your previous book specifically regarding academic publishing, but I felt like this book was interesting, and almost meta. You’re writing this book about the publishing industry, about people who write books, as you’re going through this entire process. Can you speak to that experience?

John B. Thompson: I was struck by the fact that the one sector that people had neglected for a very long time is in fact the oldest of the media industries, namely the book publishing industry. There’s a big sub-field, as you probably know, of [research on] the history of the book, but in terms of people trying to understand how the book publishing industry is changing today, well, no one has really done a very thorough job of it since the 1970s. So I decided that it was a huge gap and something that we really should address. I was also very interested in the book industry because I’m a writer and an author. . . . Of course when I began working on the industry I quickly realized that the book publishing industry is really a set of industries, it’s a complex world or set of worlds that are interconnected with one another.

I focused on academic publishing, and that took me a few years because it’s very complicated, so I wrote Books in the Digital Age, and the central lines of argument that I developed in that piece of work seemed to me to be to be compelling. . . . And I thought “Ok, I’ve steered clear of trade publishing up till now but why don’t I see if I can do something similar.” So I threw myself into the world of mainstream trade publishing and basically talked to lots of people in the industry and tried to figure out how it worked.

I wanted to write a book about trade publishing that was like a trade book, not a purely academic book. Books in the Digital Age is quite dense, it’s a scholarly book. With Merchants I wanted to write it in a way that was accessible to and interesting for a wider readership.

MH: I think it’s particularly interesting and important that you emphasize that the digital books revolution isn’t as responsible for a lot of the shifts and changes in publishing that people often say it is.

JBT: The technology dimension is hugely important but technology exists within a context. And it’s part and parcel of a broader set of social, economic transformations that have shaped the industry for the last fifty years. It plays itself out in that context and the new struggles and the new conflicts that emerge [do so] within an industry that is structured in a certain way, and you don’t understand them unless you understand those broader structures.

MH: You only include a small section towards the end where you specifically address the process from an author’s perspective. Could you speak to that decision? You are the author writing the book, so that perspective is almost inherent in the book itself.

JBT: The reason for it is more structural and systematic than the point you just made. In my view, writers and authors are on the margins of this industry. The publishing industry has a structure and dynamic that is, to some extent, self-contained. The authors and writers are on the outskirts of that. They tend not to interact with it very much. They actually on the whole don’t know very much about the industry, they tend to outsource knowledge of it to their agents. They live in different worlds. My aim was to try to understand the structures and dynamics of an industry that basically plays itself out in terms of shifting relations of power between three key actors: the publishers, the agents, and the retailers. Those are the key players. Writers and authors are of course absolutely critical, just as indeed readers and consumers are, but they are the providers of the content, or the recipients of content at the other end.

I did want to include some writer perspectives but I intentionally left it until the very last stage of the research. I felt I had to, first of all, figure out how the industry works before I started talking to writers about it. The last stage of the research was to interview 20-30 writers in the U.S. and the UK and I threw myself into that for awhile and it was utterly fascinating. . . . I learned, first of all, that many writers didn’t understand the industry at all, they really didn’t know much about it. They didn’t really care very much, you know, they didn’t want to know very much, they wanted to do other things; they wanted to write, they wanted to produce their books, they wanted to interact with readers, they wanted to interact with other writers. They were happy to get on with what they really wanted to do, which was engage with the written word.

MH: Now I feel like this is sort of a fun one—in what part of the industry would you work if you were to go into publishing? And you could say it might be different if you were going into publishing now as opposed to twenty-five years ago. Where you think you would end up, what you found an affinity with?

JBT: Well, I think the editorial side is always going to be very exciting, because it’s really that creative side of the business where you are working with authors and you are shaping the ideas, and it’s hard not to be excited by that–the creative edge of the industry where so much is going on and you’re sort of playing this integral role in bringing forth new ideas and shaping new work and so on.

It’s also pretty exciting what’s going on in a technology side, the cutting edge where the industry is beginning to morph and change. Where you’re thinking about what kinds of new sorts of books are going to be brought into being and how the book itself is going to change in this new environment in which we find ourselves. It’s pretty exciting stuff. I mean, the excitement on the editorial side has always been there, it will never go away, that’s really the point at which you’re dealing with ideas. But I think the metamorphosis of the industry now is such that working at that critical technological edge would also be pretty exciting too.

MH: You do a good job of analysis and overview in the book, but don’t really make any predictions quite. Essentially, what would be your advice for change, or your predictions for what is really going to have to change?

JBT: It’s a mug’s game, trying to predict the future when you’re in the midst of so much change. Basically you’re laying yourself open to being wrong. And most people who try to do it have been wrong, so it’s a pretty haphazard process. . . . Just to take the most obvious thing that everyone always asks about, when are ebooks going to eclipse print books—you know that’s what everyone asks—and the truth is we have no idea. No idea. Everyone that’s tried to predict that question over the last twenty years has got it wrong. . . . My opinion on the matter is that there is going to be a mixed economy of print and digital books, and portions are going to vary from one sector and genre to another. Some genres are going to be heavily digital, some less so. . . . There could be a development of new devices which suddenly push things forward in an area where we hadn’t expected it, in something like children’s books or something like that, which we just don’t know about at the moment. The best thing is to be honest and just recognize that you simply don’t know.

MH: You mention a lot of the big heavy-hitter, runaway success bestsellers but one of the areas of the industry that you don’t really touch on that much is the young adult section, which is interesting because a lot of interest and expectation and growth is going on in young adult right now, even more so than it was ten years ago. It’s really emerged as a major player in trade publishing. So having said that, this is just a little bit for fun, but we’ve had Harry Potter, Twilight, and now the Hunger Games. If you had to say, what do you think the subject of the next runaway teen story is going to be?

JBT: You’re right to point to that, it’s very striking and very interesting that with Harry Potter and Twilight you have that area of children’s and young adult which has been a kind of incredibly dynamic sector of the industry and not one that I gave a great deal of sustained attention to. I think it would merit more sustained attention. Certainly children’s publishing is a field of its own, and I didn’t really look at it that in detail. I think that these are great questions. I won’t try to answer that properly because the truth is I didn’t really work on it in the same way, though it’s incredibly interesting in and for itself. I don’t know what the next new big thing is going to be, I don’t think anyone does, and if you did, you’d be a wealthy person if you could predict that kind of thing. . . . The Harry Potter story is just utterly fascinating. No once had a clue what was going to happen. That’s partly what makes trade publishing such a fascinating business, that sheer unpredictability of it all.

MH: So this is my last question, and it’s interesting because I know you didn’t want to give much prescriptive advice beforehand but this is a little bit different; what would you say, or what advice would you give, to young people who are starting out in the industry or looking to break into the industry?

JBT: I suppose that in the current state of the industry I would say three things: Don’t be too pessimistic. There is a lot of pessimism around about the industry and its future, a lot of doomsday scenarios being painted, but actually I don’t think I would do that. I wouldn’t allow yourself to be drawn down by that because in fact it’s an amazingly dynamic and creative industry and it’s quite buoyant. People are still buying books and they will always buy books.

But second, I would also be very flexible and very open-minded and don’t be too committed to traditional ways of doing things. I think the industry is one where people kind of learn by doing. They go in, and they get trained by other people and learn on the job and they tend to learn the rational ways of doing things. But I think this is the time where you have to be prepared to be flexible, open-minded, willing to embrace change and see it as an opportunity, not a threat. The industry is going to change and people have to be willing to change with it. See it as an opportunity to do what publishers do even better.

And I think third, and probably crucially, is remember that at the end of the day it’s all about the quality of the content. . . . It’s about the beauty of the written word and really keeping focused on that. Don’t take your eye off that ball. Good publishing is always going to be about the same thing that it’s always been, which is acquiring the best content, cultivating and nourishing it, putting it in a form that people want to read, and then making it available to them. And that’s what will never change. If you have the right content that people really want, even if you’re going to be making it available to them in different ways, everything’s going to be fine actually.

Maree Hamilton has worked for two major publishing houses and a prominent literary agency. She currently writes puns for a living at and lives in Brooklyn with her aloe plant, Calvin.

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