Merchants of Culture?

This week involved the Publishing MA class discussing interpretations of this terminology and the title of John Thompson’s 2010 book, Merchants of Culture, which looks closely at the changing role of the publisher. This term – publishers as merchants of culture – is an interesting one and is open to much analysis.

The book highlights the increasingly competitive marketplace as publishers compete to acquire content by entering into contractual relations with authors or their agents. Added to this, publishers must also compete for the attention of readers and retail space once a book has been produced. The book marketplace is incredibly crowded and from the research I carried out for my latest course assignment, I understand the importance of the symbolic capital of the imprint, the social networking of publishing staff and the author in ensuring that a new title is not lost in the flood of books which appear each season.

Critiques of the publishing industry often focus on its corporate nature, arguing that the profit motive impedes decisions that would otherwise be based on pure literary merit. However, it is essential for publishers who bank on having a few big hits to offset a lot of flops. Thompson states that being “merchants” does not mean offering only low-culture products, but differentiating the offer in order to compete. It does not mean an end to the promotion of culture but of producing it in different ways and at different levels.

In a world where anyone can publish a book, publishers, like any business, cannot remain static. The diversification of sales outlets e.g. supermarkets, toy shops, the internet have meant that modern publishers have made efforts to connect their books with specific audiences by going where that market goes. With the advent of social media and the influence it has on book sales, a publisher cannot avoid being a merchant and ignore the taste of the ‘common user’. In other words, a book must be shown to be financially viable and that enough profit will be generated to support the company’s other activities.

In October 2013, The Business of Fashion examined the rise in popularity of books related to fashion, in particular highly illustrated monographs which retail between $150 – $500 on average. When the leading publishing house Rizzoli published a book on Tom Ford in 2004, the initial concerns were whether or not consumers would respond positively and whether a niche product would be only desirable to a limited audience. Ten years on, the book is still in print and selling remarkably well. It is a trend which can be observed internationally. Go in to most of the larger book stores and it is apparent that books pertaining to fashion design occupy far greater space on shelves than titles related to, say, architecture or product design.

Marketing campaigns have successfully positioned such books as being almost comparable to luxury accessories; akin to the latest designer handbag, for example. Additionally, fashion brands have international following and so benefit not only from the expertise of the publishing house but also from being able to introduce a form of the brand in overseas markets at a relatively small sum. The release of a new collection which seem to occur fairly frequently is a good opportunity to tie in with the marketing of the book. From a retail viewpoint, it is evident that a book can assist with maximising sales of a new line. If the brand already has a strong presence then it is a means by which the ‘brand’ can communicate with it’s ardent followers.

So, the fashion book has increasingly become an ‘objet d’art’ , a sort of collectors possession, which has escaped the fate of other genres in this digital age. This may go some way in explaining the ongoing popularity of fashion books and provides a fabulous and timely (at this stage in my course) example of a successful marketing campaign.