[JT] Jochen Topf's Blog
Tue 2010-10-12 00:00

The Publishing Business

One of the things I like to do when on holiday is spending huge amounts of time and money in book shops and then more time reading the books. And inevitably the time runs out faster than the books, so my stack of unread books keeps growing. I recently added a new bookshelf conventiently located near my bed just for the unread books. There are just too many interesting things and interesting books about those things out there…

One book I came upon on my last shopping spree was “Merchants of Culture – The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century” by John B. Thompson (ISBN 978-0-7456-4786-9). It took me a while to read the 400 pages, but it was worth it.

Being myself a published author I had wondered on several occasions about the strange ways of the publishing industry, so this book was especially interesting to me.

The book contains a thorough examination about the field of trade publishing in the US and UK. The author has interviewed hundreds of participants in the industry: authors, agents, publishers, editors, marketing people, etc. He does an amazing job of aggregating all the information he got into a coherent picture of how the world of publishing works, its “logic” as he calls it. How the rise of literary agents and the bigger and bigger publishing corporations changed the business in the last 50 years. How the Internet and the e-book does now. I have a better idea now how books end up on the tables out front in the book store (publishers pay for that privilege), why book covers often look different in different countries (cover designers know about cultural differences and preferences and change them for the target audience) and many other things.

Thompson’s prose is nice to read, albeit a bit wordy. Everything he said could have been said in half the space. He intermixes his own words with (anonymized) quotations from his interviews which gives the, on occasion a bit dry subject, some life. Where apropriate he has numbers to back up his conclusions, unfortunately often in tables instead of easier to understand charts.

The book gave me some insight into how the “system” of publishing works, what the roles of the different players are. But it was more interesting from an academic point of view than for practical purposes. My experience with the book industry has maybe been a bit unusual. It seems typical for book authors for instance to be only interested in the writing itself, not how the book looks later or how it is marketed. Thats the traditional realm of the publisher. But for me and Frederik, my co-author on the OpenStreetMap book, the whole look of the book was and is very important. We did the layout ourselves, even the cover. We talked with the publisher about formats and types of paper and binding. Part of that was to save money, but part of that was also our desire to create a really nice book that fit our ideas and our intended audience. So we were and are much more involved in the whole process of publishing than most authors.

So now one more book is read and tonight I can go to my bookshelf and choose the next one to open. And I will think not only about the contents of the book but also about how it made its way from the author, through the publisher, wholesaler and book shop into my hands.

Tags: book · openstreetmap · publishing