Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing, by John B. Thompson

Robert Eaglestone relishes a business history that is as much of a page-turner as a novel 

March 11, 2021
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My late uncle Christopher enjoyed mischievously playing the role of “wicked capitalist” to tease me, his book-loving, lefty nephew. He once confided that there were “more exciting stories in business than you could ever find in a book”. My (lovely) uncle would have relished John Thompson’s Book Wars as much as I did, books and business intersecting in thrilling reports from the trade-publishing front lines by a leading (as it were) war correspondent.

We join the story of publishing in the 1990s. It is a precarious time: rapid growth of retail chains for books; aggressive super agents demanding more money for their clients; new huge conglomerations of publishing houses. Into this world comes the digital revolution, “the possibility of a completely different way of handling the content that was at the heart of the publishing business”. This is the first theme of the book; each of the chapters, full of human interest and well-crafted stories, tells us about how a 500-year-old industry and new tech collided.

For example, Thompson takes us through the rise of the e-book, from the origins of Project Gutenberg to the messianic no-more-paper craziness of the late 2010s to now, where e-books routinely make up about 15 per cent of the market, clearly differentiated by type (genre fiction accounts for most; cookbooks and juvenile fiction least). So, Thompson argues, while the digital revolution has altered the format of the book (as paperbacks did 70 years or so ago), it has not changed its form. Entrepreneurs and creators who attempted to craft new kinds of book – enhanced e-books, books-as-apps, adding music and images – flowered and then died away.

Others saw in the digital revolution a chance to monetise backlists. Books published before 1923 were in the public domain, and by 1994, publishers had begun to add clauses in contracts covering digital formats. But this meant that books released between those dates appeared to be in a kind of legal no-man’s-land; digital upstarts began acquiring the online rights to them. Horrified, the major publishers took them to court but these first skirmishes proved inconclusive.

But the book wars began in earnest, argues Thompson, when Google and Amazon moved into the publishers’ territory. Indeed, this is the second key theme of the book: Amazon as “a drug on which publishers have become hooked”. By far the biggest retailer, Amazon also collects and controls “information capital” on the readers, so it has a closer relationship with the customer base than any publisher. Roughly speaking, no one knows what to do about this. Legislation, perhaps? Thompson argues that publishers ought to at least develop their own channels to the audiences.

Other minor fronts opened up: algorithms change and personalise a book’s visibility (“You bought Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, why not try Fearne Cotton’s Speak Your Truth?”) and threaten bricks-and-mortar shops; self-publishing ironically set up businesses keen to publish people; crowd-funding resurrected a much older way of doing business; Netflix inspired subscription services for books; audio books are booming. But, for the time being, Thompson writes, publishing will be “co-existent cultures of print and digital”.

In a scholarly article, I once (rather pompously) wrote that we need a “contemporary history of the book”. Well, now we have it, for trade presses at least. I just didn’t expect it to be so interesting. I should have listened to my uncle.

Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing
By John B. Thompson
Polity, 450pp, £30.00
ISBN 9781509546787
Published 1 March 2021

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Publishing faces its next chapter

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