The Publishing Ecosystem in the Digital Era: On John B. Thompson’s “Book Wars”

September 2, 2021   •   By Jennifer Howard

Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing

John B. Thompson

IN 1995, I WENT to work as a writer and editor for Book World, the then-standalone book-review section of The Washington Post. I left a decade later, two years before Amazon released the Kindle ebook reader. By then, mainstream news outlets like the Post were on the ropes, battered by what sociologist John B. Thompson, in Book Wars, calls “the digital revolution” and its erosion of print subscriptions and advertising revenue. The idea that a serious newspaper had to have a separate book-review section seems quaint now. Aside from The New York Times Book Review, most of Book World’s competitors have faded into legend, like the elves departing from Middle-earth at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Their age has ended, though the age of the book has not.


Nobody arrives better equipped than Thompson to map how the publishing ecosystem has persisted and morphed in the digital environment. An emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge and emeritus fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, Thompson conducts his latest field survey of publishing through a rigorous combination of data analysis and in-depth interviews. Book Wars comes stuffed with graphs and tables as well as detailed anecdotes. The data component can get wearisome for a reader not hip-deep in the business, but it’s invaluable to have such thorough documentation of the digital publishing multiverse.


Thompson has invested decades of his professional life in studying the industry, and it appears to have earned him a rare level of trust. He’s not an insider, but he cultivates sources who are. Book Wars draws on some 280 interviews done for his previous book, Merchants of Culture (2010), an ethnography of trade-book publishing in the early 21st century, plus some 180 new interviews that took place primarily between 2013 and 2018. He often anonymizes his sources and their employers, a tactic that yields valuable information; one of the big publishing houses, “Olympic,” even provided 10 years’ worth of data on ebook sales. That’s a real coup, given that publishers guard sales data as if it were the One Ring.


One big question animates Thompson’s investigation: “So what happens when the oldest of our media industries collides with the great technological revolution of our time?” That sounds like hyperbole — book publishing hasn’t exactly stood still since Gutenberg. A lot happens in 500 years, even without computers. But for an industry built on the time-tested format of print books, the internet understandably looked and felt like an existential threat as well as an opportunity.


Early on in his study, Thompson neatly evokes the fear that accompanied the advent of ebooks. The shift to digital formats had already eviscerated the music industry; no wonder publishers felt queasy. As Thompson writes, “Were books heading in the same direction as CDs and vinyl LPs — on a precipitous downward slope and likely to be eclipsed by digital downloads? Was this the beginning of the end of the physical book?” That question has been asked over and over again for decades now, and the answer remains an emphatic No. (Note to pundits: Please resist the urge to write more “Print isn’t dead!” hot takes.) But publishers didn’t know that in the early digital days.


The words “revolution” and “disruption” get thrown around so often that they’ve lost their punch, but Thompson justifies his use of them here. He recalls the “dizzying growth” of digital books beginning in 2008, “the first full year of the Kindle.” That year alone, ebook sales for US trade titles added up to $69 million; by 2012, they had ballooned to $1.5 billion, “a 22-fold increase in just four years.”


Print, as usual, refused to be superseded. Despite their early boom, ebooks didn’t cannibalize the print market. Thompson uses data from the Association of American Publishers to show that ebooks plateaued at 23 to 24 percent of total book sales in the 2012–’14 period, then slipped to about 15 percent in 2017–’18. Print books, on the other hand, continue to account for the lion’s share of sales, with a low point of about 75 percent in 2012–’14, bouncing back to 80­ to 85 percent of total sales in 2015–’16. (Thompson’s study stops before the 2020–’21 pandemic, but print sales have for the most part been strong in the COVID-19 era.)


For some high-consumption genres, like romance, the ebook format turned out to be a match made in heaven; Thompson notes that romance “outperforms every other category by a significant margin.” But readers in most genres have grown used to choosing among formats, and traditional publishers have for the most part proved able and willing to incorporate those formats into their catalogs. That’s a net gain both for consumer choice and for broader access to books.


Still, the 1990s and early aughts were an understandably nervous period for book publishers and for old media companies in general. Thompson restages some of the battles over the digital control of book content. For instance, he examines the high-profile legal actions brought by publishers and authors against Google over its ambitious plans to digitize books, many still in copyright, and to make that content available in “snippets” or (with restrictions) as whole texts through the Google Books and Google Library projects.


I covered those lawsuits and their important copyright and fair use implications for The Chronicle of Higher Education back in the day, and I remember how high the stakes felt. The copyright and access questions raised then remain important now. But in terms of the internet’s disruptive influence on publishing, the focus has moved to Amazon. Thompson quotes an anonymous trade-publishing CEO: “The power of Amazon is the single biggest issue in publishing.”


It’s easy to see why. With its vast market reach and unprecedented access to customer data, Amazon has made itself indispensable to publishers, who rely on it both to drive sales (often at painfully deep discounts) and to connect with readers. For many of us, if a book’s not available on Amazon, it might as well not exist. “Given Amazon’s dominant position as a retailer of both print and ebooks and its large stock of information capital, publishers increasingly find themselves locked in a Faustian pact with their largest customer,” Thompson writes.


That pact has proven hard to break. “Today, Amazon accounts for around 45 percent of all print book sales in the US and more than 75 percent of all ebook unit sales, and for many publishers, around half — in some cases, more — of their sales are accounted for by a single customer, Amazon,” Thompson points out. That’s staggering.


Does Amazon care about books? Not in the way that publishers, authors, and readers do, but that doesn’t change the power dynamic. Amazon derives its power from market share, yes, but also from what Thompson calls “information capital” — namely the data it collects about its customers. That gives it an enormous advantage over publishers, whose traditional business approach prioritizes creative content and relationships with authors and booksellers.


Workarounds to Amazon exist, though not yet at scale. Just as authors have learned to connect with readers via email newsletters and social media, so have publishers been experimenting with direct outreach via digital channels. Email feels almost quaint, but done well it remains a simple and effective way to reach a target audience. Selling directly to readers means publishers can avoid the discounts and terms imposed on them by Amazon and other distributors.


Thompson spends a lot of time on the Amazonification of the book business, but another intriguing story line emerges from his fieldwork, too: how, like Darwin’s Galápagos finches, publishing has evolved to fill many niches. Traditional book publishers trundle along in a hybrid and increasingly diverse print-and-digital ecosystem. University and independent publishers, operating outside the New York–centric Big Five model, create opportunities for writers to get their work out. For instance, West Virginia University Press published one of last year’s biggest literary successes, the story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw.


Authors can now sidestep literary gatekeepers, such as agents and acquiring editors, and build successful careers with the help of self-publishing platforms and outlets that didn’t exist 20 or even 10 years ago. Self-publishing has become respectable; we’ve traveled a long way from the days when book review editors wrote off self-published books as vanity press projects. Newspaper book sections have mostly vanished, but book commentary pops up all over the internet, in serious review outlets like this one and in the feeds of Instagram and TikTok influencers. It’s a #bookstagram as well as an NYTBR world now. To me, that feels like a win for books, authors, and readers.


One of Thompson’s biggest accomplishments in Book Wars is the many different iterations of contemporary Anglo-American trade publishing he identifies. “Trade publishing” turns out to be a baggy term, and I did not fully appreciate how many kinds of publishing outlets exist now until I read this book. Empowered by the internet, writers can self-publish via an array of publishing services and digital platforms like Smashwords or Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). They can crowdfund their books and connect with readers via user-driven online communities like Wattpad. Some will switch among different options depending on where they are in their careers and what projects they’re working on.


Some authors hit the big time in terms of sales and readers without relying on a traditional publisher. Thompson returns several times to the example of the software engineer-turned-writer Andy Weir, whose hit book The Martian (2011) got its start as serialized chapters published on his blog and delivered to readers via newsletter. (Newsletters represent another digital-publishing trend unlikely to disappear anytime soon.) “The astonishing success of The Martian — from blog to bestseller — epitomizes the paradox of the digital revolution in publishing: unprecedented new opportunities are opened up, both for individuals and for organizations, while beneath the surface the tectonic plates of the industry are shifting,” Thompson writes.


Book Wars digs deep into those shifts, discussing origin stories as well as failures and successes. Thompson lays out a dizzying array of models and start-ups that come with different creative, reputational, and financial trade-offs and opportunities. It’s almost too much. Does all of this activity really count as publishing? Content creation and delivery suffuses the internet, blurring boundaries and roles. Still, it’s useful to have case studies of old and new publishing models and adjacent enterprises like the ebook subscription service Oyster, which did not survive, and Scribd, which has thrived in spite of competition from Amazon. As Thompson notes, Scribd already existed as a digital platform for documents before it added ebooks, audiobooks, and podcasts to its offerings. It’s reported to be in talks about a $1 billion IPO later this year.


For a book that’s almost 500 pages long, Book Wars sometimes doesn’t go far enough. Thompson rarely veers into opinion, but he argues that “there is an urgent need to look again at some of the basic assumptions of antitrust law and enforcement” given the outsize influence of behemoths like Amazon. I wanted to hear more about that. I also wanted more about how the digital shift looks and feels to writers as well as to readers, editors, booksellers, and other key actors. The human element matters just as much as the technological one, maybe more. Some of publishing’s most urgent conversations — about diversity and equity, about who gets published and promoted and why — fall outside the scope of Book Wars.


Still, the world doesn’t lack for manifestos about the future of technology and the book. Thompson does digital-era publishing the favor of treating it as an object worthy of rigorous sociological study. I don’t know if he has another volume in him, but I expect there will be plenty of material for one another decade from now.


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Jennifer Howard is the author of Clutter: An Untidy History (Belt, 2020). She is a former senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education and a former contributing editor for The Washington Post.