Book Review: John Thompson, Books in the Digital AgeSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Books in the Digital Age. By John Thompson. Malden, MA: Polity, 2005. xi + 468 pp. ISBN 0-7456-3477-X, 0-7456-3478-8 (paperback).
"Publishing firms," writes John Thompson, "are engaged in the business of acquiring content, adding value to it in various ways and selling it in whatever form they can." Publishers add value in several ways: list-building, financial investment and risk-taking, content development, quality control, management and coordination, and sales and marketing. While the digital revolution has brought major changes to the industry, publishers’ roles have not changed; only the technology has changed. The digital revolution has made a profound change in their processes and in the industry structure: Thompson points to the AOL-Time Warner merger, the growth of Bertelsmann, and the power of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. And publishing remains expensive: publishing continues to be a low-margin business. Thompson, a sociology professor from Jesus College, Cambridge, decided it was time to investigate what the digital revolution had done to publishing. His book is the first academic study of the publishing industry since Coser, Kadushin, and Powell's Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in 1982.
To approach such a large subject, Thompson studied 16 unidentified academic (scholarly monograph) and higher-education (textbook) publishing firms, doing extensive interviews and generalizing from his findings. The insight he gained helped him understand the changes in publishing in the last decade, and allowed him to see how different publishers reacted to that change. The first part of his book deals with publishing business as a whole. In the second part he looks at the pressures on academic publishing in the United Kingdom and the United States, considering current changes and possible directions for the future. In part three he explores the differences between higher-education publishing in the UK and the US. Thompson’s conclusion covers the specific impacts the digital revolution has had on publishing in general, on academic publishers, and on textbook publishers. Technology now permeates all aspects of the industry, from accounting to production and fulfillment, though the final product—the book—remains the same. Thompson calls this a “hidden revolution.”
Thompson’s focus on academic and higher-education publishing keeps his book manageable, as these two branches have much in common. Textbook and monograph authors and readers come from the same pool, and the academic environment pushes both textbook and monograph publishers to experiment with technological advances in production and delivery. Academic publishers, the university presses, and commercial houses like Sage or Routledge provide two essential services: they certify scholars' work as worthy of attention, and make it available to other scholars. But academic publishing reaches a fairly small market, primarily academic libraries and research centers; total sales for a hardback-only monograph are often as low as 400 copies worldwide. Worse, shrinking library budgets and changing collection priorities have created further pressure on monograph sales, even as host institutions demand increased accountability and profitability from their presses. Given this new environment, Thompson suggests four changes. First, academic presses must explore new publishing strategies, whether they are improved cost controls, new markets, or alternative media. Second, selective list-building is increasingly necessary: developing a reputation for quality in a single field is more valuable than a broad range of undistinguished work, and very few presses have the resources to do many things well. MIT's press, for instance, has been very successful since limiting its lists to a few subjects aligned with the school's expertise. Third, improved public relations is critical. Of special importance is communicating the actual role of the university press to host institution administrators, who may see only the monetary expense without appreciating the social and academic capital accrued to the institution by a well-respected press. Making their financial straits and their unofficial—but undeniable—role in tenure decisions better known would also help. Fourth, Thompson suggests that academic presses publish more textbooks.
Thompson reports that while scholarly publishing is seen as the sine qua non of academic publishing (perhaps because university presses’ missions require them to publish), it is dominated by Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and a handful of other profitable presses. For the rest, it is largely a money-losing field, in part because university press operating subsidies are shrinking. To make money, many publishers rely on academic trade books—books on serious subjects for the general market—which do not usually succeed. Textbook publishing, on the other hand, is a completely commercial adventure, with just three companies—Pearson, Thomson, and McGraw-Hill—accounting for over 70 percent of the U.S. college market in 2002. But textbook publishing is a natural market for scholarly monograph publishers to explore, Thompson says. Textbooks are often written by the same scholars who develop monographs, and they are used by them in their classrooms as well. A few scholarly publishers are already successfully established in it.
The textbook market has two unique features: the adoption system, whereby books are sold to faculty but bought by students, and the used-textbook market. The adoption process requires expensive sales efforts from dedicated “campus travelers,” and means that competition for large introductory courses is fierce. An individual instructor or small committee will chose one text for all students in an introductory course; these large classes allow large and profitable print runs. One result of the competition, Thompson points out, is the publishers' development of supplemental material, which may improve the course but also drives up the textbook price, in turn contributing to increasing problems with sales projections and returned stock, and creating demand for used books. It is hardly a sustainable system. Even the biggest publishers are forced to rush out new, largely unchanged editions every two years to recoup the development costs otherwise lost to used-book sales. Breaking into this market at the profitable lower level requires large capital reserves. Academic publishers looking to the education market generally concentrate on upper-level courses, where class size and profits are smaller, but competition is less intense.
Still, Thompson is discussing books: what of the digital revolution's impact? The revolution is hidden in back offices rather than on display. Electronic-book technology is still developing, but content delivery is only the last link in the publishing chain. Operating inventory and accounting systems, content management and manipulation, and marketing practices have all been profoundly changed by computerization. Even content delivery has been changed: while we may still buy a physical book, we now do this online as easily as in a shop. As Anthony Smith said in 1985, "the word processor, like the typewriter, is becoming transparent within our culture; that is, it is rapidly becoming indispensable, playing a role so automatically in our lives that we are not sensible to the fact of its differentness from the technologies that proceeded it." The real changes computers have wrought in publishing are conceptual, Thompson writes, allowing publishers to think about books as digitizable content assets rather than as physical objects. Additionally, new technology means that back-end systems for business management and production systems become much more efficient, comprehensive, and up-to-date, as assets change from physical objects to information content.
With Books in the Digital Age, Thompson provides an insightful snapshot of an industry in a time of change. His focus is a description of the current state of academic and higher education publishing and how publishing got here. The book provides a measured, detailed look at an understudied subject. It would be a good addition to any research library, where it will be accessible for undergraduate research or the dedicated reader. However, this is an exasperating book in which nothing is documented, only asserted. An appendix of edited interviews would have done wonders for the book's credibility, and omitting a list of the companies observed and their selection criteria seems inexplicable. It is not a reference book, but a scholarly monograph—the very kind of book that Thompson suggests university presses should move away from if they are to be fiscally sound. It is therefore an argument against itself, and it loses.
Everett Wiggins works at J-STOR, the scholarly journal archive, and moonlights at the University of Michigan Undergraduate Library reference desk. He has a Master of Arts from Indiana State University and a Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan.