Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the book industry. Throughout the volume, Thompson walks the reader through the major phenomena that have turned publishing into the uber-peculiar institution that it has become — namely, the proliferation of massive retail chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, the rise of literary agents in the wake of (of all things!) William Safire’s Before the Fall, and the emergence of massive publishing conglomerates. Additionally, Thompson explains the inner workings of several larger and small publishers to give the reader a sense of how books eventually (and, in most cases, improbably) get into the hands of consumers, and he also pays considerable attention to the ways in which e-books have changed the playing field for everyone in the business. The prose is dry, and the book is as thick as a telephone directory, but anyone who, like myself, is fascinated with publishing will find no end of insight in this meticulously researched volume. In fact, I went so far as telling a friend of mine who chairs a graduate program in publishing and editing that if the students in his program aren’t reading this book, they’re not getting the education they’ve paid for. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you want to understand the publishing industry, read this book.

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