Last Friday I went down to Goldsmith’s College in New Cross (always feels like an epic journey somehow though it only takes an hour) to hear John Thompson give a lecture on ‘The Digital Revolution in Publishing’. Thompson is a social scientist, and I read his excellent book, Merchants of Culture last year when I was working on my PhD by Published Works. The book is a fascinating study - part sociology, part business analysis, part ethnography - of the past two decades in trade publishing in the UK and the US. An updated paperback is just coming out now.
Thompson’s talk was fascinating; he gave an in-depth analysis of where the publishing industry is at currently in terms of digital transformation. He told a few good stories, focusing on the unpredictability of the shift to digital; for instance, how the overall trade publishing percentages of market for ebooks disguise the fact that, within the market for fiction, the shift to digital has been much much higher for certain authors in certain genres. He talked about ‘the hidden revolution in publishing’ over the past decade, the complete transformation of workflow and production from analogue to digital. He discussed how many people within trade publishing have been surprised to discover that readers have a big appetite for reading on e-readers, and how sustained narrative in the form of fiction or creative non-fiction has proved to be hugely popular in the digital realm.
One of the things I found most interesting in Merchants of Culture was the final chapter, ‘Trouble in the Trade’, in particular the section ‘Damaged careers’, where Thompson gives several case studies of writers who have, to put it bluntly, ended up on the scrapheap after failing to sell as many books as the market deems fit to survive. The thing that struck me most forcibly in this section - and that clearly struck Thompson as well - is how these writers operate within an industry of which they have next to zero real knowledge. To repeat: most writers know nothing about the publishing industry. They know how much they’ve been paid, and they know how much their friends have been paid. But as to how the industry actually functions, both on a production level, and on a larger cultural level - what, for instance, makes a ‘Big Book’? - writers function in a knowledge vacuum. There are many reasons for this - writers are interested in writing, and they are interested in reading, and they are interested in other writers - but during the question period I got to ask Thompson about this. Why does he think that writers are so ignorant about their own industry?
Thompson pounced on the question, saying that his next big research project will focus on this very thing - writers, and the world we inhabit. Then he said a very interesting thing. He said, ‘Writers outsource their relationship to the publishing industry to their agents’.
This struck me as a very simple way of stating a profound truth, and one that carries with it many layers of complexity. Writers can’t survive in the industry without agents. Agents act as our intermediaries - we let them get on with business while we write. But, more than this, this statement reflects a cultural truth - writers aren’t supposed to be business people, we’re supposed to stay in our garrets and dream our beautiful dreams. No publisher wants to have to deal directly with a writer over a contract. And while writers outsource their relationship with the industry to agents (apart from, of course, the writer-editor relationship we all hold dear), publishers outsource the finding of new writers and new books to agents.
Of course, the rise of indy or self-publishing is beginning to disrupt these relationships: I suspect that whenever any writer self-publishes, the thing they discover, above all else, is how much they don’t know - and how much they need to learn - about how books are published.
Thompson also stated that one thing that isn’t talked about in all the endless discussions about the future of publishing, and the state of the industry today, is the human cost to writers who are experiencing the blunt end of change. Last week the agent Jonny Geller published his excellent ‘An Agent’s Manifesto’; he says its time for the industry to wake up to what is happening to writers, that this industry would not exist without us. ‘The author is not an object which a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication,’ he says. But he also adds that writers need to step up and understand more about how publishing actually works.
Geller is right to say that now, more than ever, we writers need our agents. But we writers also need to wake up and understand how this big complex industry works as it heaves itself, groaning and moaning, with bits dropping off, and two black eyes, into the twenty-first century.