Book reviews, May 2017

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A Crash Course in Publishing for Librarians in three books

Two books about publishing that all librarians must read are Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century and Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States.  Both are by sociologist, John B. Thompson, who bases his work on hundreds of hours of interviews with people in the publishing fields. He narrates how economic forces have transformed the book-producing landscape, effecting relationships between authors, literary agents, marketing executives, small-time presses, and local bookshops.  Apparently Amazon is not as big a predator as Costo in the US or Tesco in the UK when one looks at the data.  Although both books are a few years old, they have come out in more recent editions and give librarians a really good sense of the economic forces publishers are facing in a constantly evolving environment. Books in the Digital Age, especially, is helpful when it comes to librarians negotiating deals with publishers.  Both books are engrossing, sometimes in disturbing ways.

A sociologist who writes as well as Thompson is probably the best person to present this material as he can nimbly insert himself into selected professional niches, exposing a hidden world, much like carefully placed miniature BBC cameras manage to film birds feeding their newly hatched chicks. What’s recorded in these pages was always there, but until now the audience just was not aware of it. Thompson connects economics and the trends for globalisation with people making basic business decisions with a heavy impact.  One of his conclusions seems to be what gets published in big firms doesn’t matter as much as how it is marketed, and authors are often treated as distant cousins interloping on a family reunion.  One would think that authors are central, but perhaps, the title Merchants of Culture really does reflect publishing reality.

As someone who studies the history of the book, I did recently read A History of British Publishing by John Feather, professor of Library and Information Studies at Loughborough University. Feather’s book covers six centuries of the publishing trade in Britain, and while not as riveting as Thomson’s books, it is interesting for a scholarly monograph, discussing how books were financed, produced and distributed from the Plantin press to laser printers.  It is rich in information.  Of note, Feather’s book talks about why the publishing industry started the Net Book Agreement in 1900, and then touches on why it ended in the 1990s.  Merchants of Culture picks up the dramatic publishing story from there.

All three books will provide insight and an essential overview of how the environment of publishers affects the what’s available in the local ecosystem to readers.  It really is a story of survival of the fittest.  But what makes something `fit’ will surprise you.

Rose Roberto