Book Review: Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing by John B. Thompson – London School of Economics


In Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing, John B. Thompson explores the digital transformations that have turned book publishing on its head over the last 30 years. Offering a noteworthy study of recent changes to the publishing world, this work is well worth reading to understand where the book was in the latter part of the twentieth century and where it is headed well into the twenty-first, writes Amy Lewontin

Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing. John B. Thompson. Polity. 2021.

In Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing, John B. Thompson takes the reader on a wild and exciting ride exploring the changes that have turned book publishing on its head over the last 30 years, with the development of many new technologies that readers may have come to take for granted or never considered.

Book Wars offers up well-crafted chapters on the social changes that have arisen affecting reading as well as trade publishing. Trade is considered to be both fiction and non-fiction for general readers (xi). Many of the chapters focus on specific technologies, including the rise and decline of the e-reader, the increasing popularity of the audiobook and the fascination with self-publishing and crowdfunding for writers.

What Thompson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, offers up as the real basis of the book is his knowledge of the ‘hidden revolution in the processes of book publishing’, and he weaves the stories of the ‘innovators’ throughout the chapters. Thompson explains in his ‘Note on Research Methods’ that his book is based on face-to-face interviews with those within publishing and those outside, ‘the many players, large and small, […] experimenting with digital technologies in ways that could affect the creation, production, distribution and consumption of books and long-form reading’ (489).

Thompson has also written an earlier study of trade book publishing, Merchants of Culture, and interviews from this work have been incorporated into Book Wars (xiii). Thompson posits the idea that other fields of creative media were hit harder by ‘digital disruption’ and were less prepared. Publishers, Thompson argues, were better positioned for the legal battles over ownership of content and copyright, having seen the destruction already taking place in journalism and the music industry.

Image Credit: Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash

One strength of Book Wars is that it directly addresses changes in our society larger than the fate of trade book publishers: namely, the power of ‘user data’ owned by newer technology companies, including Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. As Thompson explains in the chapter ‘Old Media, New Media’, user data ‘is the principal source of their power’ (434). With the growth of mammoth internet book retailers like Amazon, the collection of behavioural information about consumer selections and purchases has grown tremendously.

Thompson’s interviews in the field pay off here as he lets the reader into areas seldom explored in …….


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