Traditional publishing as alien beast

WHM reports on Merchants of Culture: The Publishing in the Twenty-First Century and posts an excerpt from the book relevant to aspiring authors.

Cover of Merchants of Culture by John ThompsonI am personally agnostic on the whole traditional publishing versus self-publishing thing. The vast majority of the authors that I enjoy reading are traditionally published. Some are hybrid authors. And I have read a few self-published works that were excellent. I, personally, am pursuing whichever paths fit best with my output, and right now, that doesn’t matter so much since I’m solely writing short fiction.

However, the more I find out about the way the publishing industry is structured, the more head-scratching it seems. It operates very differently from other industries. And I don’t think self-publishers are necessarily immune from the weirdness of the industry since the vast majority of indie sales come via Amazon.com.

If you are interested in the oddness of the publishing industry and why that oddness exists, I highly recommend Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B. Thompson (the second, updated edition). Thompson is a sociologist and creates a fascinating framework through which to understand the particularities of the publishing industry. He also draws upon numerous, varied (anonymous) industry sources, quoting their own words extensively, to help explain how it all works.

Thompson is thorough but also vivid with his prose. I was struck by one particular passage:

For the vast majority of writers or aspiring writers, this system seems like an alien beast that behaves in unpredictable and erratic ways, sometimes reaching out to them with a warm smile and a handful of cash, inviting them to join the party and holding out the prospect of a future of riches and fame, and then suddenly, without much warning or explanation, pulling back, refusing to respond or perhaps cutting off communication completely. This is a system geared towards maximizing returns within reasonably short time frames; it is not designed to cultivate literary careers over a lifetime. (382)