Distant Cousins: Literary Studies and Thompson's Merchants of Culture

Seen through a sociologist’s eyes, the literary system can look very strange indeed.

I thought I understood this principle, having quaffed vigorously of the heady Bourdieuean mead and embraced Bourdieu’s ways of making questions of literary value, literary reading, and literary belief historically and socially relative. But I have been spending months coming to terms with a new version of the lesson, having been reading and thinking over the British sociologist John B. Thompson’s recent book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. I’m going to discuss it in this post and a subsequent one, and my lit-sociological comrade Lee Konstantinou will address Thompson too, continuing the dialogue from our earlier discussion of Wendy Griswold’s work on the reading class. In this post, I will give a quick summary of this remarkable and important book and then state what I see as its principal challenge to literary study.

Thompson’s book is an analysis of contemporary trade publishing, both fiction- and non-fiction, in the US and the UK, on the basis of interviews with the people of the world of publishing (writers, editors, publishers, corporate executives, retailers) and statistics about the publishing industry. I approached the book with the idea that Thompson would provide a guide to the social context of recent writing: his project is to explain the “logic of the field” of trade publishing, and I assumed that this would involve explaining the way institutions support different versions of literary ideas, different kinds of literary value, and so on. I imagined that Thompson would enrich my sense of how production, mediation, circulation shape what kinds of books get made and produced in publishing.

And in one sense this is indeed what Thompson does. Here is a rough summary of his findings. Contemporary trade publishing is shaped by three structural transformations that have taken place since roughly the 1970s: the growth of retail chains (bookstores—also supermarkets) as the dominant way books are sold; the power of literary agents to command large advances for big authors and serve as indispensible mediators between authors and publishing houses; and the consolidation of the medium- and large-sized publishing houses under a few corporate umbrellas. These transformations have produced what Thompson calls “the polarization of the field” (146): there are now a few very big, market-dominating trade publishing corporations, and there are many, very many, small publishing operations, but there are almost no medium-sized trade publishers.

Both large and small publishers are, in the polarized field, ever more preoccupied with the need to come up with the “big book,” the bestseller, the title that exceeds expectations; and in order to find the big book, publishing becomes ever more devoted to the signs of potential bigness: “track” (the track record of an author’s sales); “platform” (the built-in potential audience of web-followers, affiliated organizations, etc.); and—in one of Thompson’s neatest phrases—a “web of collective belief” (74) that transforms an agent’s “hype” into the self-reinforcing “buzz” of publishers’ commitment to the possibility of a book’s big sales. The last part of Thompson’s book explores the consequences of this logic of publishing, in terms whose judicious neutrality does not obscure the signs of the industry’s crisis: an ever-shrinking “window” of visibility for new books, in which they either take off as bestsellers or fall into neglect; an ever-stronger emphasis on frontlist over backlist; and diminishing “diversity in the marketplace” of books sold to readers in spite of ever-proliferating “diversity of output” (and quantity of output) from the field of publishers (389).

Thompson cuts through some prominent clichés of contemporary book-talk. For example, he gives a powerful argument that the Web era’s impact on trade publishing is not the instant revolution it is sometimes thought to be. Amazon, though important and growing, is still small in market share compared to both the chain sellers and the mass-merchandisers; the 800-pound monster of book retail is not Amazon but Costco and Walmart (or, in the UK, Sainsbury’s and Tesco). E-books are growing fast but are still minor on the balance sheets of trade publishers. The true digital revolution in publishing, Thompson argues, has already happened: is it digitization of the process of publishing, not the product (321).

This process/product distinction leads me to what is most startling about Thompson’s book for a literary scholar. The truth is that we are much more used to making arguments about the product than the process. And Thompson’s attention to publishing turns out not to require much specificity about the products—that is, the texts of books, or even the way readers read books. Merchants of Culture is about the producers and distributors of the sorts of books literary scholars study—or the latter-day descendants of the sorts of books those of us who work in earlier periods study—but it says practically nothing whatever about either writing or reading. Instead, as Thompson himself says in his conclusion:

For the vast majority of writers or aspiring writers, this system seems like an alien beast that behaves in unpredictable and erratic ways, sometimes reaching out to them with a warm smile and a handful of cash, invting them to join the party and holding out the prospect of riches and fame, and then suddenly, without much warning or explanation, pulling back, refusing to respond or perhaps cutting off communication completely. (374)

As for reading, it proves to be the great black box of publishing. Thompson repeatedly emphasizes that one of the distinguishing traits of publishing as a business is the unpredictability of the success of any given book. Selling books is not like selling widgets, because readers’ taste remains, in the view even of the sales executives and marketing managers of big publishing corporations, very hard to predict. Only top author “brands” and certain very well-defined genres have any predictability of reader response, but these domains of lesser uncertainty are not enough to sustain the big publishers’ business.

But for me another, absolutely basic fact was even more revelatory: Publishers’ customers are not readers. The primary customers for trade publishing houses are, rather, the buyers for retail booksellers. Because bookstores can return unsold stock to publishers, by an arrangement that is eighty years old in the US and, I think, a about a century old in the UK, the individual reader is in a sense the final customer. But the audience the publishers must most urgently convince to buy consists of the retailers. And, as Thompson shows, because contemporary bookselling has become a highly consolidated business, dominated by mass-merchandisers and big chain bookstores, the “audience” constituted by those large retailers heavily influences how the publishers produce: they need to produce the kinds of books those sellers can reliably and profitably sell.

Thus the field of trade publishing sees everything through mediators’ eyes. This is as true of writing as of reading: writers lie outside the logic of the field, but agents lie within it. I can make my point with a diagram, which is a drastic and tendentious oversimplification of Thompson’s intricate charts of the “supply chain” and “value chain” of publishing (15-16):


Must literary studies confine itself to the margins of the publishing field?

I thought that, following the example of book historians, I would know how to make sense of an analysis like this literarily: I would be able to see how these contours of publishing processes shaped what D.F. McKenzie called “the sociology of texts.” But to encounter mediators at both ends of the process of literary circulation is to feel, as I have tried to show in my diagram, that literary scholarship as I know it hovers only on the very edges of the circle.

Thompson shows, compellingly, that trade publishing’s self-reinforcing “logic of the field” (Thompson, too, draws on Bourdieu) joins agents, publishers, and retailers in relations of cooperation and competition—but those relations include writers and readers only in a remote way. Thus it is no criticism of Thompson’s sociology to say that his account of trade publishing barely features the primary producers—writers—and the ultimate receivers—readers. Indeed, Thompson himself, in his methodological appendix, admits to interviewing more writers than his study really needed, because they were fun to interview; but still:

They [writers] offered a very different and crucially important perspective on a field to which writers both belong and don’t belong, like some distant cousin who is tolerated but not really welcome at the family gathering. A proper study of the worlds of writers would be a wonderful project in its own right, but this was not the project on which I was embarked here. (411)

Thompson is not likely to have assumed that readers are passive consumers, either; he is the author of The Media and Modernity, a powerful theoretical statement about the importance of the way audiences use and “appropriate” media forms. But within the logic of the field they are marginal, the source of varying sales figures and vacillations of taste, the objects of the folk wisdom of agents and editors and booksellers—but that is all.

And so I find myself, in thinking over Thompson’s arguments, oddly but emphatically at sea about how to appropriate his work for literary scholarship. I have some scattered ideas for a next post, but I hope this post (and Lee’s, to come, and, we both hope, the discussion in comments) will spark ideas for more possibilities. The questions are: What can we say about the books that are produced, and the ways those books are appropriated, when we know what Thompson and other analysts have to tell us about the logic of publishing? Or, better yet: how would literary scholarship have to change in order to analyze intelligibly the relation between the field of publishing and the literary field? What are the questions to which the answers would include both arguments and data from Thompson’s repertoire and arguments and data from the literary-historical repertoire?

That’s enough for Round 1. But I have much more to say about Thompson, both about specific findings that I think do have immediate significance for literary study, and about the limitations of what he has to say. So, some teasers for the sequel…

  • The narrowness of the heroic age (and the heroic ideal) of publishing
  • The Wild West is east of Boston
  • The mystery of “Quality”
  • accredited visibility: what Oprah has that you, “literary critic,” don’t.

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