Fri, 23 Mar 12 at 01:24 | No Comments Yet
I just finished John Thompson’s fascinating Merchants of Culture, an inside-baseball study of the traditional (non-electronic) publishing business. It’s worth reading. Even though e-books are seizing an increasing share of the market, hardback and paperback books still have about 80% of sales. What the self-pubbers call “legacy publishing” won’t be disappearing for a while yet, and understanding how it works seems a worthwhile endeavor.
Thompson is an academic and approaches the topic through from a sociologist’s viewpoint. Based on interviews, his descriptions of political maneuvering inside the big houses are particularly interesting. I learned quite a bit: from an offhand description of a $400,000 deal as “decidedly modest” to his explanation of “gap books” (quick-turnaround, high-profit projects used to cover the difference between a publisher’s internal projections for a given fiscal year, and the greater profits demanded by the corporate owners).
Or his analysis of a new book’s critical period, the first few weeks of sales:
The large publishing organizations are remarkably quick at responding to the first signs of success. They are not blundering dinosaurs — far from it. They may not know in advance which books are going to take off [but] the sales, marketing and publicity operations are geared and resourced in such a way that, when they see that a fire is starting to ignite, they are able to pour generous quantities of fuel on the flames. In a hits-driven business like trade publishing where there is a high level of uncertainty about when and where the hits will occur, the key is to structure the organization in a way that enables you to respond quickly and effectively to the first signs of success …
Seems obvious, but I’d never thought about it that way before.
Like most others, including many of his interviewees, Thompson does miss the e-book tsunami (published in 2010, the book is based on research conducted from 2005-09). But the rest is fascinating.