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John B. Thompson: On Researching Changes in the Book Publishing Industry

John B. Thompson, author of the new book Book Wars, shares the research that went into his account of how the digital revolution changed publishing for readers and writers.
John B. Thompson | Book Wars

In his new book, Book Wars, John B. Thompson documents the whirlwind changes of the book publishing industry in recent decades, from the advent of Amazon to the boom of self-publishing. He shares about his experiences researching the book in this author profile.

Name: John B. Thompson

Book title: Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing

Publisher: Polity

Expected release date: 7 May 2021

Genre/category: Nonfiction

Elevator pitch for the book: This book tells the story of how the digital revolution has transformed the world of book publishing, from the surge of e-books and the rise of Amazon to the self-publishing explosion and the growing popularity of audiobooks. It provides a comprehensive and fine-grained account of digital disruption at the heart of one of our most important creative industries.

Previous titles by the author: Books in the Digital Age (2005) and Merchants of Culture (2010, 2012).

Book Wars | John B. Thompson

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What prompted you to write this book?

During the last couple of decades, there’s been a lot of discussion about the impact of the digital revolution on creative industries like music, movies, and newspapers, but no one had tried to provide a clear analysis of what happened when the digital revolution began to disrupt the oldest of our media industries—the book publishing industry. There was a lot of vague speculation about “the end of the book” but no one was studying what was actually happening in the world of books. I had begun to do this in my book on the transformation of Anglo-American trade publishing, Merchants of Culture, but this book dealt with the changing structures of trade publishing over a longer time period, from roughly the 1960s to 2010. So I wanted to write a sequel to Merchants of Culture which was focused specifically on the impact of the digital revolution on the world of books.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

It took quite a long time because I didn’t want to write yet another book that speculated vaguely about the death of print or the end of the book: I wanted to do some serious research on what was actually happening both within the publishing industry and on the margins of the field, so that I could base my account on an analysis of hard data and real-world developments. I began working on the project in 2012 and from 2013 to 2019 I did fieldwork in the US and the UK—in New York, Silicon Valley, London, and elsewhere. I did around 180 interviews with a wide range of individuals who are (or were) centrally involved in developments related to the digital transition in publishing, from the CEOs and senior managers of publishing houses and tech companies to the entrepreneurs who were pioneering startups of various kinds. Since I was working on a subject matter that was constantly changing, I had to be prepared for the possibility that some developments which seemed important at the outset would become less important over time, while other developments could emerge at any point. For example, while audiobooks have been around for some time, they have become much more important in recent years, facilitated by the widespread adoption of smartphones and the development of subscription services like Audible, so I needed to expand the scope of my research to make sure I was able to take account of this important development. Apart from the time-consuming activity of doing fieldwork, I also had to integrate my research and writing activities with my teaching and administrative duties as a university professor. I worked on the writing of the book from 2015 on, though the most intensive writing took place in 2019-2020, after the fieldwork had been completed. So it was, roughly speaking, eight years from the beginning of the project in 2012 to the completion of the book in 2020.

John B. Thompson | Book Wars

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

There were not many surprises in the publishing process itself, but there were some special challenges. The most significant of these involved the visual representation of data. I sometimes use data to show the impact of the digital revolution in the book world—for example, to show what has actually happened with e-book sales, and how different genres of books have performed very differently. These days, we’ve become accustomed to creating graphs and charts in Excel where lines and bars can be differentiated by color—and with the entire spectrum available, it’s easy to create complex graphs and charts which are easy to read. But redesigning these graphs and charts so that they can be printed in a book using only black and shades of gray is not easy: This was one area where the publishing process became a learning experience and required some creative re-envisioning of my original material. I’ll let the reader to decide how successful our solutions were.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

There were many surprises over the course of the eight years: When you’re doing research of this kind, you simply don’t know what you’re going to find when you immerse yourself in the fieldwork. To give one example: The explosion of self-publishing is one of the most important consequences of the digital revolution, and I spent a lot of time trying to map out the world of self-publishing and understand how it works. This is uncharted territory: Self-publishing is a hidden continent that is largely invisible to the normal data-gathering agencies of the publishing industry. Uncovering this world and understanding how it works was a process of constant discovery, full of surprises. In 2016, I met up with “Data Guy” at a café in San Francisco; Data Guy is a software engineer and indie author who wrote under a pseudonym. He was making waves in the publishing world because he had developed an innovative method for estimating the sales of self-published e-books by scraping data from Amazon’s bestseller lists. His findings were truly startling: Here was compelling evidence that the world of self-publishing was generating many more bestselling e-books than most people—and especially most people in the world of traditional publishing—had assumed. His findings also demonstrated how dangerous it was to try to understand what was happening in the world of books by focusing only on the books published by traditional publishers.

[Read More: 25 Publishing FAQs for Writers.]

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope readers will gain a deeper understanding of the enormous changes that are taking place in the world of publishing today. The digital revolution has made the world of books and of publishing a much more complicated place, with many more players and many more options for both readers and writers. I hope my book will give readers and writers an overview of these changes, a cognitive map that will help them to make sense of and orientate themselves in this brave new world in which we are now living.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Inform yourself! Most writers are focused on their creative work as writers, and they may know relatively little about the world of publishing upon which their creative work—and, in some cases, their livelihood—depends. This is perfectly understandable: Writing is hard enough as it is, and it seems sensible to outsource the work of publishing to agents, editors, and other publishing professionals. But publishing professionals have their own interests which may or may not coincide entirely with the interests of writers, and the better informed you are about the world of publishing and how it’s changing, the better equipped you’re going to be to make decisions about where and how to publish your books and, just as importantly, about how to make them visible in a world where the forms and spaces of visibility are changing. 

John B. Thompson is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Emeritus Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. His previous books include Merchants of Culture.

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