Book Review:

Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, John B. Thompson (Polity: Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA, 2010), ISBN: 978-0-7456-4786-9, hardcover

The Book in the Renaissance, Andrew Pettegree (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2010), ISBN: 978-0-300-11009-8, hardcover

Life, Keith Richards and James Fox (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010), ISBN: 978-0-316-12856-8, First e-book edition

Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance and John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century share a number of striking similarities. Both are ambitious and accomplished works of scholarship, handsomely bound, competently designed and edited, a pleasure to hold and read. Hefty in intellectual vigor yet eloquent and accessible to an audience beyond a narrow field of research, they are what Thompson describes as “high-quality books with a scholarly content, often (but not always) written by scholars, [that] have the capacity to sell into a general trade market if they are developed and marketed properly” (page 182). They represent the apogee of the types of scholarly works prized by collectors in the early era of print, collectors such as Fernando Colón, the son of Christopher Columbus, whom Pettegree describes fondly, with praise for his remarkable catalogues and annotations about his book purchases, now nearly as invaluable as the works themselves. While Thompson’s previous book, Books in the Digital Age, focused on university presses and other academic publishers exclusively,[1] in Merchants of Culture they are discussed at the margins of the field of trade publishing, the locus of Thompson’s lens in his present volume. In the early days of print, these works of scholarship were the trade.

Both are the types of books that garner excellent reviews in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, et al. (as long as these rapidly dwindling venues for reviews continue to exist) and whose publishers hope to win prizes, as Thompson describes in his book. Another similarity shared by Thompson’s and Pettegree’s tomes is that, at the time of this writing, six months to a year after publication, neither is (fully) available as an e-book. The Yale University Press website lists an e-book version of Pettegree’s book, but states it is “temporarily out of stock in our warehouse,”[2] which makes no sense until one reads the Amazon reviews for the book, some of which state that images were missing from the book’s Kindle edition, no longer listed. According to the publisher, a redacted version without images is available from a few e-book vendors, but the Kindle version was removed until the publisher secures the image rights. The lack of an e-book version is a bit more ironic, however, in Polity’s case, which bills Merchants of Culture as “an incisive analysis of the current state of the book publishing industry and of the key challenges it faces today”[3]—one of those key challenges is whether or not trade publishers will survive and thrive in the digital age. Indeed, perhaps the most striking similarity of all is that both Pettegree and Thompson describe the culture and business of books during an era that has passed but maintains an influence today. In Pettegree’s case, of course, that era is the first 150 years of the printed book, from Gutenberg’s press to the dawn of the seventeenth century, four hundred years ago—while the era Thompson surveys is so recent that one can almost still smell the ink, yet feels nearly as remote in the face of rapid change.

While Pettegree avoids making obvious comparisons to the era he describes and the wrenching transformations of the current book business, parallels abound. His only explicit reference to today’s information revolution is in his Note on Sources, wherein he conveys the irony of how “the steady development of online library catalogues in the last twenty years has allowed scholars to draw together data from a mass of libraries around the world to create a master list of editions for each part of Europe—and hence for the whole first age of print.... a total repertory of around 350,000 editions, and some 1.5 million surviving copies” (page 354). It wasn’t the scribes and scholars, notes Pettegree, who invented the printing presses: “Scholars in the fifteenth century had all the books they needed: their attention was directed to borrowing, copying, and bargaining necessary to obtain more texts. It required hard, practical men, often men of little education, to see the potential of a new method of copying that would bring many hundreds of texts simultaneously to the marketplace” (page 21). But neither was the transition easy for early printers; Pettegree relates how many early printers went bankrupt by focusing on elaborate, costly volumes, while the ones that thrived often printed populist texts, announcements, and royal ordinances.

The Book in the Renaissance makes a number of fascinating and sometimes surprising points. Among these are the quantity and great variety of books in Europe before the age of print: “By the late medieval period Europe was full of books: books for churchmen, for scholars, for schoolboys, as well as the large decorated texts favoured by nobles and princes” (page 3). Not surprisingly, the value of the latter category of manuscripts ensured that they were treasured, bequeathed, and survived for generations, many to this day, while books for daily use such as catechisms and schooling were used and typically discarded or the paper recycled to stuff the bindings of other books or furniture. In addition, while we often think today that the incunabula period of the first fifty years, from Gutenberg’s Bible to the turn of the fifteenth century, marked the rise of print and the death of the manuscript, Pettegree points out both that “hand copied manuscripts would retain a special allure into the sixteenth century and beyond” (page 20), and that the survival of print was by no means assured, as “buyers had to be retrained to accept the monochrome finished article as an adequate substitute for the more dazzling manuscript” (page 53). The new printing press attracted attention and investment, and spread nearly as quickly through Europe as the Black Death, but the realities of the marketplace doomed many early ventures to failure. Early printers (publishers) that survived were those whose eye was on the more mundane commercial aspects, men like Nicolas Jensen and Aldus Manutius, who focused on a viable market, limited their expenses, and published texts that the market would bear. Bestsellers in the early days of print were reliable classics from Petrarch and Virgil, theological texts such as Books of Hours, and volumes sought by specialists in law and medicine.

Pettegree describes Desiderius Erasmus as “almost certainly the first living author to make a substantial living from writing” (page 82). While Erasmus’s genius and wit captured the attention of his contemporaries and ensured his place in the canon, Pettegree illustrates a man with a keen practical and commercial sense, who paid close attention to the printing process, shrewdly did his utmost to encourage sales of his works, and sensibly oriented his writing and production to the rhythms of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Nevertheless, the salvation of the printed book, posits Pettegree, was the Reformation, particularly Luther. Martin Luther, “book town” Wittenberg, and the spread of the Reformation were inexorably linked as “print, profit, and Protestantism” (page 347). In the two years following the posting of his 95 theses in 1517, Luther penned nearly two dozen additional original works, most of which found a wide audience and spawned multiple printings and translations. Luther’s most popular and influential works, such as Sermons on Grace and Indulgences, were written for a vernacular audience, in German, instead of the typical theological works written in Latin, and this “was in many respects the decisive moment of the Reformation, far more so than the posting of the theses” (page 95). The tremendous success of these works fomented the printing industry in Wittenberg and elsewhere in the German Empire. Between 1520 and 1525, writes Pettegree, “German presses turned out 7,764 editions, an increase of 340 percent on the ten years previously” (page 101). (One can’t help but think of the tremendous growth of e-books today.) In other parts of Europe, printers focused on publications of Catholic theology, works attacking Luther, or other types of publications that resonated with the public such as Orlando Furioso.

During the sixteenth century, religious strife from the Reformation and Counter Reformation placed books, printers, booksellers, and readers at risk. “Heretical” books were consigned to the bonfires, and printers who ran afoul of the authorities faced not only the loss of their press but their lives. Printers responded, logically, by producing the tracts promulgated by their local ecclesiastical authorities, printing official edicts, or publishing non-confessional and noncontroversial publications such as popular emblem books (page 246). These smaller books, in fact, such as two-page broadsheets for local authorities, school books, and cheap almanacs compiling the predictions of Nostradamus, were the books that proved profitable and became the mainstay of successful publishers.

Merchants of Culture focuses on how “big books” became the mainstay of the trade publishing business in the latter part of the twentieth century. Like a sociologist peering into the rituals of a culture that may seem bizarre to outside observers, Thompson writes about the “logic of the field” of publishing, the conditions under which agents and other organizations can “play the game (and play it successfully)” (page 11). Even though, as Thompson writes, the logic of the field may seem irrational, or prove “unsustainable in the long run” due to “the expectation of substantial growth in a market that’s largely flat” (page 373).

Thompson’s work, well-researched and documented, if at times elliptical due to his reliance on unattributed interviews, should be required reading for anyone interested in books, publishing, and their impact on popular culture. One might quibble a bit at times, and I will: Nowhere in the book did I find the term “metadata” (data about data), which in many respects is the lifeblood of the publishing business in the twenty-first century and the key to books’ discoverability in the digital age. Granted, metadata may be a bit esoteric, perhaps, for a “popular” book about publishing. To his credit, Thompson does discuss the impact of the “hidden revolution” of digitization on operating systems, content management and workflow, sales and marketing, and content delivery. Still, while metadata has surrounded books since the era described by Pettegree, as booksellers and collectors catalogued their wares, it’s hard to overstate metadata’s impact on publishing during the past two decades. At the 2011 Tools of Change conference, a publishing executive remarked to me that “metadata is the content.”

Another quibble: The subtitle of Merchants of Culture is The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, but it would be more appropriate, though less eloquent, to call it The Publishing Business at the End of Twentieth Century and the First Few Years of the Twenty-First Century. The business Thompson describes, even six months after the book’s publication, is, at least in some respects, dead, that of a bygone era. The publishing business during the final eight decades of the twenty-first century will likely bear faint resemblance to the field Thompson describes.

Thompson begins with the remarkable rise of the retail chains, Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, and the profound impact these chains have had on bookselling. I say have had, since Waldenbooks is now all but gone, subsumed by Borders, which itself has filed for bankruptcy and is liquidating its stores; Barnes & Noble has been closing once-prime locations due to rising rents and decreasing revenues, and has cast its lot in the digital age with its launch of the Nook e-reader.

Barnes & Noble began as a wholesale business “supplying textbooks to schools, colleges, and libraries” (page 27), which seems downright Renaissance, before opening a large retail operation in New York. It wasn’t until Leonard Riggio acquired the struggling Barnes & Noble in 1971 that it expanded territories and stores and became by the late 1980s one of the largest booksellers in the United States.

The rise of superstores coincided with my first years in publishing. I spoke briefly at the American Booksellers Association conference (now BEA) in 1993, about efforts at the U.S. office of the large Mexican publisher where I worked, trying to open the U.S. market for Spanish-language books. We were piloting large sections of Spanish-language books in university bookstores and independents like Vroman’s. A young buyer from Borders approached me after the session and gave me his card. At the time, Borders had about 20 stores and was expanding to more than 30, and just beginning to venture west of the Mississippi. We received our first order from the buyer a few months later, an order worth tens of thousands of dollars; more orders followed. This floored our office—up to that point we’d been netting a combined total of about five to ten grand per month for the entire United States. Borders had decided to put a large section of Spanish-language titles in every one of their stores, part of an effort to provide an enormous selection of well-picked books, and in this case, hopefully, tap into the growing community of Latinos in the United States. The rise of the superstores put our office in the black, and swelled the coffers of many publishers, though it was a double-edged sword: Beware of the returns that often flooded back from these mighty giants. They are also often blamed, at least in part, for the death of many fine, independent stores.

Thompson also traces a bit of these superstores’ decline, though the long lead times required in researching, writing, and publishing a volume such as this result in his coming up a bit short in capturing their full woes. The recession; the emergence of the Kindle, iPad, et al.; the rise in retail rents and the impossibility of raising book prices—and especially, the increasing competition for people’s attention and time—means that chains of bookselling superstores probably aren’t coming back. It’s hard to imagine the reemergence of Borders; a swelling Barnes & Noble; or a new retail chain materializing, some new model called “The Loft” stocking a wide and eclectic assortment of indie presses and music labels, offering performances of slam poetry, alternative music, and neo-folkies. At an individual city level it’s plausible, but a new national bookselling chain seems farfetched.

Amazon was not founded by a publisher, or even a bookseller, it was founded by a guy outside the publishing business with a vision. And it seems that many publishers are being dragged kicking and screaming into the e-book age. As recently as 2008, a survey of publishers attending the Frankfurt Book Fair reported that 60 percent of responders neither use e-readers themselves nor download e-books on their computers, and 12 percent believed that e-readers are a passing craze.[4] The large trade publishers are attempting to meet demand, but not, for the most part, trying to stimulate it.

Life, by Keith Richards and James Fox, is one of those “big books” described by Thompson: celebrity author; large advance; bestseller lists; stacks at Barnes & Noble, Costco, and Target. Personally, I don’t read a lot of autobiographies, especially (gulp) celebrity autobiographies, but intrigued by the book’s good reviews, I bought the e-book. Richards has had an interesting life, to say the least, and is the first to admit amazement that he’s still alive to tell the tale. “There were many years where, on average, I slept twice per week” (page 21), he writes, and you know in Richards’ case it’s not hyperbole. The book is not entirely about debauchery, though of course there is some of that. It’s thoughtful and touching; Richards has a great voice (one wonders the extent to which Fox had a hand in not only crafting the structure but in capturing Richards’ narrative tone); compelling lessons about creativity and leadership are frequent; and descriptions of the moments when he and Mick Jagger, as young teenagers, are dissecting the blues and learning their craft, are thrilling to read.

Reading Life, I often yearned for an enhanced e-book. Not the current publisher/marketing department conception of an enhanced e-book—indeed, there is an enhanced edition available that includes “pages from Keith Richards’s 1963 diary; an expanded photo insert (15 exclusive photographs); audio: Introduction from Keith Richards, Chapter One read by Johnny Depp, Chapter Thirteen read by Keith Richards.”[5] No, I’m imagining the kind of book we will read in the future, when everything is linked, and access is ubiquitous. Here are a few examples, but the book is rich with potential.

When Keith talks about the “majesty of five-string open G tuning for electric guitar... tuned GDGBD” (page 217), or an intriguing Scotty Moore lick, “he has a rundown when it hits the 5 chord, the B down to the A down to the E, which is like a yodeling sort of thing, which I’ve never been able to figure” (page 67), how great would it be to be able to click and see a lesson hear a sample of the riff, perhaps even see a video demonstration. He describes the Stones in 1964, playing the T.A.M.I. show in Santa Monica, following James Brown—let’s see a video clip of one of the Stones’ performances from that concert. Throughout the book, of course, are figures from our cultural history; background information would be nice. The book also sprinkles reminiscences from Keith’s various and sundry associates, and I suppose most of them were recorded. Wouldn’t it be cool to hear some of these segments, perhaps even longer, unedited versions, as audio or video recordings? Every time Keith talks about one of the amazing songs he’s written with Mick, I want to stream it right there; how inconvenient to be forced to find the vinyl, CD, or mp3 in order to listen. How many years before these kinds of things are standard? The question isn’t whether, but when.

Of course, other questions include who’s going to pay for all this, and who’s going to actually do it? Publishers are calculating the e-book equation and it’s not looking great to many of them: A relentless, downward squeeze on prices looks likely, fears of piracy loom large, a glut of information competes for patrons’ time. Remarkably, these are the same quandaries faced by printers during the early days of print, although today authors and, at times, their publishers, are more likely to be pilloried on the auto da fé of public opinion. The publisher certainly has the expertise to develop these types of hyperlinked, multimedia-rich e-books but may balk at the resources required. In Life’s case, there are legions of Stones fans that would eagerly enrich the text were the book offered on a platform such as Comment Press or Media Commons Press. Not everyone wants to see everyone’s comments, annotations, and marginalia, so let’s have the ability to turn these comments on or off. Want to read the book without distractions? Fine. And perhaps it would be nice to choose different levels of authority—that is, I’d relish more the comments from Keith’s invited friends and associates than those of anonymous, though eager, fans. In most cases, however, it’s the author who will have the drive and expertise to richly enhance his or her book, perhaps in collaboration with peers and the wider community.

Certainly, there are significant rights and pricing issues that may take years, if not decades, to evolve. I suspect that eventually most customers will pay a subscription fee to one or more providers for access to all manner of media, be it movies, music, games, books. Amazon’s recent move to include streaming movies as a part of the Amazon Prime service, at one annual fee, is a step in that direction.[6] How long before the behemoth offers all the Kindle books you want, all the music, along with streaming movies, at one price? Rights holders will be compensated by access or time spent, in an ASCAP or BMI model. As Kevin Kelly remarked in his Tools of Change conference keynote, we are moving away from ownership to access, to reading as a social activity, and we’re only at the beginning.[7]

This is perhaps Merchants of Culture’s greatest weakness, through no fault of Thompson’s own, no doubt; as the book was written, edited, designed, and published, the widespread acceptance of e-books was still, a bit, in question. Now, Amazon sells a Kindle for $159 and has announced that it is selling more e-books than hardcovers or paperbacks (but not both, yet); Steve Jobs proclaimed that 100 million e-books have been downloaded from iBooks in the iPad’s first year; and an increasing number of authors are going the digital publishing route on their own. Superstores are closing and it’s unlikely to be a temporary blip (page 397). As more customers buy Kindles and download e-books, the big box stores like Costco will turn away from books to other products with greater profit margins.

There are those, as Adam Gopnik points out in his New Yorker essay, who relish the arrival of an age of interconnectivity and ubiquitous information access; those who believe we are losing to our peril our capacity for deep reading and reflection; and those who believe this is part of one long stream of change, and change is always threatening to some and of comfort to others.[8] Is publishing, and the book itself, soaring toward new summits, or hurtling into the abyss? There’s little doubt that the Internet and e-books offer amazing opportunities for self-publishers; sites such as Smashwords allow anyone to publish, free of charge, and get a book offered, if not sold, nearly instantly to Amazon’s Kindle and a gazillion other devices. Besides being gatekeepers, can publishers continue to add value on the value-chain Thompson describes (pages 15–17)? That “most trade publishers are in no hurry to see the e-book market expand” (page 364) seems, however, like part of the problem. Granted, trade publishers have nightmares over the specter of $0.99 e-books, but couldn’t worldwide access to an audience, offering translations in various languages, open up new markets? Going back to Life, the publisher might offer a $4.99 stripped-down e-book; a $9.99 hyperlinked and multimedia-enhanced version; an even more robust $29.99 version with access to expanded audio interviews, comments, subscription to updates, access to sheet music; a $49.99 illustrated, coffee-table book with a CD containing exclusive Keith tracks; and a $1,999 version, limited to 500 copies, signed by the authors, in the shape of a guitar case.

Not every title offers Life’s rich enhancement possibilities but a tremendous amount provide opportunities for enrichment. Most nonfiction, like The Book in the Renaissance and Merchants of Culture, and fiction of many types, have potential for social reading and writing, hyperlinks and multimedia; some also provide opportunities for location awareness, augmented reality, and gamification. One imagines what the next decade’s James Joyce will dream up, the future opus of a digital Tom Wolfe, or the wonderfully immersive world that will be created by the imaginative heir of J. R. R. Tolkien forty years hence. The history of this century’s evolution of “the book,” written two hundred years from now, will, like these, be a fascinating and compelling read.

John Warren has nearly two decades of experience in the publishing business, with a background in academic, educational, Spanish-language, and trade publishing, including e-book development and distribution. He is the author of Innovation and the Future of E-Books (2009) and winner of the International Award for Excellence in the development of the book.


    1. John B. Thompson, Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005), ISBN: 978-0-7456-3477-7, hardcover; 978-0-7456-3478-4, paperback.return to text

    2. Yale University Press website. March 13, 2011). return to text

    3. Polity Press August–November 2010 catalog, available on Polity Press website.[,]page 3 (accessed March 13, 2011).return to text

    4. Frankfurt Book Fair, Press Release, “How will digitisation shape the future of publishing?,” October 2008. (accessed March 13, 2011).return to text

    5. Life, Enhanced Edition, description on Apple iBooks. (accessed March 13, 2011).return to text

    6. Amazon website. (accessed March 13, 2011).return to text

    7. Kevin Kelly, “Better than Free: How Value is Created in a Free Copy World,” keynote, Tools of Change conference, February 16, 2011. (accessed March 13, 2011).return to text

    8. Adam Gopnik, “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” New Yorker, February 14, 2011. March 13, 2011).return to text