Sunday, February 3, 2013

Thompson's "Introduction to Merchants of Culture"

In the introduction to his book, Merchants of Culture, John B. Thompson examines the world of publishing, describing it as a “plurality of fields,” in which a field is a “structured space of social positions . . . occupied by agents and organizations” and where “the position of any agent or organization depends on the type and quantity of resources or 'capital' they have at their disposal.” Thompson describes why the notion of fields is a useful way of looking at the publishing world by saying that it first allows us to see that all publishing is not the same, where academic publishing can be dramatically different than another sector, such as trade publishing; secondly, it shows that the publishing industry is “fundamentally relational in character” where agents and organizations interact with each other and make decisions based on how they anticipate each other will act. Thirdly, it puts the focus on the capital at the disposal of the agents and organizations, reminding us that “power is not a magical property” but that it is “a capacity to act” based on the resources available to the agent or organization. The different types of capital involved in publishing are economic, human, social, intellectual, and symbolic. He says that all five are “vital to the success” of any publishing firm. Finally, he says that each field of publishing has what he calls “the logic of the field,” or “the set of factors that determine the conditions under which individual agents and organizations can participate in the field,” and that the logics of each publishing field is distinct from the other publishing fields.

Thompson then goes on to describe the publishing chain, which is a both a supply chain, in which the product is moved from the creator to the consumer, as well as a value chain, where each successive link in the chain is supposed to add value to the product. The ways a publisher adds value through his or her link, he says, is through six ways: content acquisition and list-building, financial investment and risk-taking, content development, quality control, management and coordination, and sales and marketing. Thompson ends his introduction by describing the hole in the scholarly discourse that his research and book fills, specifically, examining the publishing world with data from the present day and looking at the publishing world with a global perspective instead of focusing on only one country.

While Thompson's argument is valid, seeing publishing as a plurality of fields and describing why it is an important aspect in the book creation and sale process, I didn't find it particularly groundbreaking or novel, though his claims could be useful when defending the role of of the publisher at a time when anyone can go online and “publish” a work or writing.  If everyone is a potential publisher, wont that dilute the quality of content that gets published?

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