McKenzie Lecture 2012: John B. Thompson (Cambridge), ‘Merchants of culture’

John B. Thompson cast a sociologist’s eye over the worlds of the book in the twenty-first century. Taking a close look at Anglo-American publishing, Thompson devoted his lecture to revealing the structure and the dynamic of the publishing field, and the tensions within.

A major tension, he pointed out, was that the newly emerged large publishing corporations need to achieve growth every year, while the market for books is static. The solution that the corporations have found, Thompson argued, is not to publish more books, seeking a greater market share by placing more products on sale. Such an effort would quickly overload the production and publicity teams. Rather, publishers decide to publish fewer books — but these must be ‘Big Books’.

‘Big Books,’ said Thompson, are ‘not best sellers, but potential best-sellers’. The term describes potential rather than achievement. One of the factors identifying a ‘Big Book’ is ‘buzz’. Not mere marketing-department hype or 18th-century style puffery, ‘buzz’ could be defined as ‘expressions of enthusiasm by trusted others’. Here Thompson drew on his close observation of the members of the publishing tribe; their connections with and estimations of other members of the tribe played a factor in business decisions by determining how they evaluated the ‘buzz’ around a book.

These practices in publishing had consequences for booksellers, readers, and authors; and Thompson drew the attention of the audience to a question: is publishing becoming more or less ‘diverse’? He drew a distinction between ‘diversity of output’ – how many titles are published? – and ‘diversity in the marketplace’ — how many are actively marketed to their potential readers? The market, he argued, now tended toward a situation in which the ‘winner takes more’.

Audience questions drew out Thompson’s comments on the retailing of both printed and electronic books online. The power relationship between publishing corporations and retailers, he said, had changed with the advent of large online retailing and was likely to shift again as a result of e-publishing and the spread of e-book readers.

from Alex Franklin