Sociologist Thompson investigates the changes shaking up the publishing industry in Book Wars (Polity, May.).
You conducted research while publishing was in a state of flux due to the impact of e-books. What challenges did that timing bring?
I accepted uncertainty as the price of the opportunity to study the transformation as it occurred: developments that seemed important could fizzle out, and new developments could spring up at any point. The only way to deal with this uncertainty was to give myself time. The main research took place between 2013 and 2019, but it also built upon research I’d been doing since 2000. By documenting the digital transformation over 20 years, conducting hundreds of interviews, and tracking the rise—and, in some cases, the fall—of ventures spawned by the digital revolution, I sought to provide a dynamic portrait of a field in motion.
Did the uncertainty bring benefits?
I was able to capture the lived experience of digital disruption and innovation. For those not working in publishing at the time, it may be difficult to appreciate how disorienting and uncertain this period was. E-books took off suddenly, and sales grew at a phenomenal rate. It was plausible to think that book publishing was heading for the music industry’s fate. I wanted to avoid the retrospective distortion that filters out the uncertainty of technological change.
Which of the technologies most stood out to you for its innovation?
Wattpad is a social media network that enables writers and readers to interact directly, free of charge. Wattpad also launched a book imprint where publishing decisions are taken on the basis of a story’s popularity on their platform, pioneering a reader-centric, bottom-up publishing model that emerged organically from its network-based approach to building a community online.
Do you think the clashes between tech giants and traditional publishing houses will have a victor?
While the balance of power is now with Amazon, publishers—especially large publishers—are not without leverage. Amazon, by hoovering up the personal data of millions of readers around the world, has accumulated a large stock of what I call “information capital,” giving it a seemingly unassailable position as a retailer and a clear advantage in negotiations with publishers. But Amazon needs publishers, too. Books are where Amazon began, and they remain important for Amazon, symbolically and reputationally, and their attempts to develop their own publishing imprints have been of limited success. Nothing is permanent, and things can change quickly in the digital age.