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The Blurb On The Back:

These are turbulent times in the world of book publishing. For nearly five centuries the methods and practices of book publishing remained largely unchanged, but at the dawn of the twenty-first century the industry finds itself faced with perhaps the greatest challenges since Gutenberg. A combination of economic pressures and technological change is forcing publishers to alter their practices and think hard about the future of books in the digital age.

In this book – the first major study of trade publishing for more than thirty years – Thompson situates the current challenges facing the industry in a historical context, analysing the transformation of trade publishing in the United States and Britain since the 1960s. He gives a detailed account of how the world of trade publishing really works, dissecting the roles of publishers, agents and booksellers and showing how their practices are shaped by a field that has a distinctive structure and dynamic. By reconstructing this dynamic he is able to shed fresh light on how bestsellers are made and on why many thousands of books and authors find themselves marooned in an industry increasingly focused on short-term growth and profitability. Against this backcloth Thompson analyses the impact of the digital revolution on book publishing and examines the pressures – both economic and technological – that are re-shaping the field of trade publishing today.

The outcome of nearly five years of research, this major new book will establish itself as an exemplary work in the study of contemporary culture and will be essential reading for anyone interested in books and their future.




John B. Thompson’s book is both an account of the dynamics and pressures faced by the modern trade publishing industry and a summary of the industry’s history. Using interviews with key industry players among other techniques, Thompson’s book looks at all of the key industry players – authors, agents, editors, promoters and booksellers – and attempts to explain how their roles have changed.

A sociologist by background, Thompson opens with a summary of his research techniques, which for me was the only dry part of the text (although academics may well get more from it). From that point, he produces a lucid, easy-to-understand account of the economics of the book trade and it’s a fascinating read from beginning to end. What makes it so fascinating is that he’s examining the US and UK fictions markets – pointing out where the economic pressures and dynamics are shared and where (and why) they diverge.

What is clear is that in the last 20 years sales have become king with marketing and sales figures being the key part in a publisher’s (and by token, agent’s and author’s) success but by the same token no one can be sure as to which book is going to have the greatest sales. In the UK there is close examination of the rise of ‘mega’ buyers, with supermarkets such as Tescos and Sainsburys entering the market and the effect that has had on publishers (notably in terms of returnability and prices) while in the US, there’s more of a focus on the chainstore bookstores.

Although Thompson’s research ends in late 2009 before the impact of the iPad on the book market was really becoming measurable, he does consider the impact of the Kindle and other electronic devices to date. However, I didn’t feel that he really drew any conclusions beyond the idea of their being game changers – certainly there was little analysis beyond discussion of the potential for new content and technology solutions. This is understandable given that the market itself is still trying to get to grips with it but it remains the only real weakness in the book.

For authors and would-be fiction authors this is a must-read because it is such a good summary of the industry that they are in/trying to get into. There’s a good index at the back and a solid bibliography for people who want to do more reading into the subject.

The Verdict:

A must-read for anyone interested in books and the publishing industry, this is an easy-to-understand, fascinating account of the history of the publishing industry in the UK and US and a coherent explanation for the current pressures facing the main players. The only weakness for me lies in the lack of any significant analysis of the potential impact of digital devices such as the iPad and Kindle, although this is understandable given that the industry itself is still trying to get to grips with it. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating book and one that I would heartily recommend.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the free copy of this book.

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