Author and researcher John B. Thompson analyzes recent publishing history’s rapid changes.
Publishing methods, opportunities, and battle fronts have multiplied more over the last twenty years than ever before. Author and researcher John B. Thompson walks us through the archipelago of these issues in Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing (2021, Polity Press). It examines the anxieties, realities, and shifting sands of publishing in the 2000s and 2010s, focusing heavily on the results of technological leaps and the tech companies who have developed along with them.
“The publishing ecosystem is now more complex than ever and no single model of communication flows could adequately capture the multiplicity of systems that are now in play…”
Boy is it! In Book Wars, we get a starting point to find out just how complex it can be.
The Author and His Research Methods
Author, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge, and emeritus fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, John B. Thompson, went at this project with all the gusto of your favorite TV detective mapping and solving a massive conspiracy. Over the course of researching and writing this book, Thompson conducted 180 interviews with various publishing and tech professionals between 2013 and 2018. That’s in addition to the over 200 he conducted previously for his 2013 book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. He also pored over and analyzed massive amounts of data to chart and demonstrate his points.
In this book, Thompson sought to address an idea that is at once straightforward and endlessly complex: what was the impact of the digital revolution on Anglo-American trade publishing? To put a finer point on it, what happens when the oldest of our media industries collides with the greatest technological revolution of our time?
Spoiler alert! Despite how technology has generated multiple sources of entertainment including more visual programming we could possibly watch in a single lifetime, the book is not sleeping with the fishes. It’s alive and well, and has increased in form and number at a rate comparable to cellular mitosis. Below are a few of the major topics and transformations that Book Wars covers.
Tech Companies’ and Traditional Publishers’ Struggle for Dominance
Major tech players, the most notable being Amazon, have changed the way people peruse and purchase books. Before the digital revolution, publishers never could have predicted how influential a single online retailer would be, or how Google would make it their mission to scan and post whole sections of books in order to increase their search engine traffic. The ascent of these two companies and their impact on traditional publishing alone each make up one chapter.
Book Wars goes into some literal court battles between publishers and tech companies. In particular, it wades into the conflict mentioned above between the Google Library Project and the American Association of Publishers (AAP). It also explains the lawsuit involving Amazon, alleging that Apple Books and five major publishers engaged in price fixing. An interesting angle I learned was how Amazon is a monopsony rather than a monopoly when it comes to the book industry. The word means a single buyer has singular sway over a market, and Amazon’s role as a buyer rather than a seller often protects it from antitrust lawsuits.
Data Collection: A Major Game Changer
To quote mathematician Clive Humby, “Data is the new oil,” and data collection has been pivotal for not just retailer success, but for publishers and book industry startups as well. Thompson calls data collection “information capital” and points out how easily it can be converted into “economic capital” (aka profits). This fact makes it so the major retailers, who have access to all kinds of data on buyer behavior, are able to exploit major advantages.
While Amazon is wealthy with “new oil”, smaller, nontraditional publishing startups have also benefited from data collection and used it internally to grow business. Wattpad, who features heavily in “Chapter 11: Storytelling in Social Media,” built their business using data from fanfiction writers and the people who followed and interacted with their serialized fiction. The company was able to measure what types of content were most engaging to users, then use that information to nurture writers into creating original content for the platform.
Thompson also makes a very interesting point about an unintended consequence on user data and Amazon’s algorithm. Specifically, he discusses the diversity of recommendations that other bookshops are able to offer, rather than the predictability and sameness of what an algorithm delivers to readers.
The Growing Influence of the Reader
In the digital age, readers are stronger and more vocal than ever. While, yes, that means lots of data and information is harvested and used to influence them, it also means they themselves have a huge influence on which books see the light of day. This book shows you the many ways in which that’s true, including when it comes to visibility and book sales as well as being able to publish in the first place.
“Chapter 8: Crowdfunding Books,” goes into the advantages and limitations of crowdfunding and highlights companies who focus specifically on using these fundraising methods for book publishing. Thompson emphasizes a point we’ve explored on the show, which is the fact that both self-publishers and traditional publishers can use crowdfunding not just to get their own books out, but to gauge interest and predict whether a book will sell. Thompson uses the story of former Hybrid Pub Scout guest Margot Atwell to demonstrate just what the process of crowdfunding a book looks like (a pretty great illustration, if we do say so ourselves).
Disrupted Publishing Workflows and Pricing Experiments
What would an examination of the digital revolution in book publishing be without an exploration of self-publishing options? The history of Kindle Direct Publishing is, of course, widely covered, but it is also balanced with input from Smashwords founder Mark Coker. He offers some comments on the trajectory of self-published authors on Amazon, which we’ve had guests corroborate on the show from time to time as well.
“If Amazon owns the soil, the land, the access to the customers and if they own you, if 100 percent of your income is dependent on Amazon’s good graces, you have lost your independence and control: you’re a tenant farmer.”
With all the new ways of conveying content to readers, companies have been experimenting with pricing models and workflows to adapt to a changing landscape. Thompson gets into success stories and stories of companies that tried and failed to make their businesses profitable. Content itself, whether it’s purchased backlists, self-published authors’ works, or serialized fiction, is expensive and can be challenging for people trying to profit from (not to mention justify second rounds of venture capital).
For people like us who are exploring the publishing frontier, Thompson has created a massive atlas to help us navigate this complicated terrain. I would venture to say that the book isn’t closed yet, especially since we had not yet been struck by the COVID-19 pandemic when the book went to press. Book Wars is an important tool and framework for understanding the forces that have shaped publishing as we know it since the first emergence of the e-book, and will help us contextualize what is waiting around the corner.