“Creatively Destructive Innovation” Is Continuous in Book Publishing Industry

(p. A13) In 2000 the RAND Corporation invited a group of historians—including me—to address a newly pressing question: Would digital media revolutionize society as profoundly as Gutenberg and movable type? Two decades later, John Thompson’s answer is yes, but not entirely as predicted. And our forecasts were often wrong because we overlooked key variables: We cannot understand the impact of technologies “without taking account of the complex social processes in which these technologies were embedded and of which they were part.”

Mr. Thompson provides that context in “Book Wars” (Polity, 511 pages, $35), an expert diagnosis of publishers and publishing, robustly illustrated with charts, graphs, tables, statistics and case studies.

. . .

My warning to the RAND corporation was to avoid succumbing to the “Two Big Bangs Theory”—the assumption that there were only two world-changing events in the history of print, in or around 1450 and 2000. With books, change is a constant. In the last two centuries the publishing trade has dealt with one creatively destructive innovation after another—mechanized printing and papermaking, railway bookstalls and distribution networks, linotype and offset printing, photomechanical reproduction, paperbacking and books-of-the-month. The movies opened up vast new possibilities (and revenues) for novelists, who increasingly wrote with the screen in mind, as Ernest Hemingway did when he insisted on casting Gary Cooper in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” And television supercharged book publicity, climaxing (so far) with Oprah. While Mr. Thompson is entirely right to conclude that the transformation of publishing in the past 20 years has been bewildering, that’s nothing new. In a dynamic capitalist economy, the dust never settles.

For the full review, see:

Jonathan Rose. “BOOKSHELF; Publishing In a Protean Age.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, August 9, 2021): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 8, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Book Wars’ Review: Publishing in a Protean Age.”)

The book under review is:

Thompson, John B. Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2021.

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