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.




A View of Publishing in 2014


With between 15 % to 25% of book sales shifting to digital format by 2015, the book industry is having to adapt to a whole new digital environment. The digital transition has forced authors, publishers, distributors and retailers to re-evaluate business models and relationships with one another. Several significant challenges will have to continue to be addressed such as pricing policies that secure the changing sources of profit and the redefined networks of distribution that maintain format diversity. More readers demand material which will provide an interactive experience. The Times and Sunday Times pioneered digital subscriptions and since February 2012 the number of people who receive a digital version of the newspaper has risen by 20%. Scholastic recently published findings of a study carried out which found that since 2010 the percentage of children aged 9 to 17 who have read an e-book almost doubled while the number who say they’ll continue to read books in print instead of electronically declined from 66% to 58%.

So, I thought that I would share some thoughts on what the current publishing picture looks like, what changes have been demanded from the industry and the trends that were highlighted in 2013.

  • Printed content love affair

There were many of us who thought that the start of the digital age heralded the end of the printed copy. In the same way that valedictories for the radio were proved to be somewhat premature with radio now continuing to thrive in the age of new media, publishers have responded with more and more experimenting with innovative cover designs and layouts in a bid to encourage readers to buy print over digital. Penguin have reproduced classic texts in a range of collectible books which feature designs from Jessica Hische and which include the work of authors whose surnames begin with a beautifully illustrated letter.

In addition, the fact that an e-book cannot be given away or sold once it has been read may also reduce the perceived value of the product. I think that what has become increasingly evident however is that for a publication to be viable, printed content needs to also be available online.

  • Metadata and consumer data

It has become very important for publishers to make effective use of data detailing readership and consumption as unless they can identify who is reading the content, it is difficult to tailor specific marketing campaigns. Data analysis serves as a tool for gaining insight into consumer behaviour and preference. Without data, publishers will be uninformed as to the wants and requirements of the market as we shift towards a digital retail environment.

The book­shop has traditionally been the primary means of book discovery but in view of the fact that sales are increasingly being made online, bookshops will come to have a much reduced role in the way in which books are sold and marketed with search optimisation and social media taking precedence.  In the online scenario, a reader is confronted with an limitless selection of books. Results are based on rec­om­men­da­tion and search algo­rithms dri­ven by key­words and the metadata of a book which consists of author biography, sample chapters and reviews.

  • Reader Interaction and Social Media

Amazon has forced publishers to raise their game in their relentless engagement with readers. Publishers do not have access to the same levels of data and consumer information as Amazon and are now having to fully utilize social media for content marketing, search visibility (e.g. on Twitter) and development of relationships between the deliverers of content and the readers themselves.

  • Crowdfunding

Arguably the most significant trend in 2013, it will be interesting to see how this new platform for publishing work is factored into the landscape of 2014. At once a funding platform and a publishers, Unbound has placed books “in the hands of” the readers. The founders of Unbound say that it “democratises the book commissioning process by enabling authors and readers to make the decisions about what gets published”.