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The Making of Bestsellers

Department of Media and Communications Literary Festival discussion

Date: Thursday 17 February 2011 
Time: 6.45-8pm
Venue:  Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
Speaker: John Thompson
Discussant: Andrew Franklin
Chair: Liz Chapman

Update, Friday 4 February: This event will be taking place in the Sheikh Zayed Theatre.

The world of book publishing is going through turbulent times. For nearly five centuries the methods and practices of book publishing remained largely unchanged, but at the dawn of the 21st Century the industry finds itself faced with perhaps the greatest challenges since Gutenberg. A combination of economic pressures and technological change is forcing publishers to alter their practices and think hard about the future of the book.

In his book, Merchants of Culture, the first major study of trade publishing for 30 years, Thompson situates the current challenges facing the industry in an historical context, analyzing the transformation of trade publishing in the United States and Britain since the 1960s.  He gives a detailed account of how the world of trade publishing really works, dissecting the roles of publishers, agents and booksellers and showing how their practices are shaped by a field that has a distinctive structure and dynamic.

In this discussion Thompson will show how an understanding of the publishing
world can shed light on what makes a bestseller today and he will reflect on
the key challenges facing publishers and writers as the book - one of the
oldest of our cultural artefacts - enters the digital age.

John Thompson is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. He received a BA from Keele in 1975 and a PhD from Cambridge in 1979. He was a Research Fellow at Jesus College from 1979 to 1984. He was appointed Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Cambridge in 1985, Reader in Sociology in 1994 and Professor of Sociology in 2001. He has held Visiting Professorships at universities in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, China and South Africa. His main areas of research are contemporary social and political theory; sociology of the media and modern culture; the social organization of the media industries; the social and political impact of information and communication technologies; and the changing forms of political communication. Recent publications include Ideology and Modern Culture (1990), The Media and Modernity (1995), Political Scandal (2000), Books in the Digital Age (2005) and Merchants of Culture (2010). He was awarded the European Amalfi Prize for Sociology and the Social Sciences in 2001 for his work on political scandal. He is currently working on the changing structure of the book publishing industry and the making of bestsellers.

Andrew Franklin is the founder and Managing Director of Profile Books, one of Britain’s leading independent publishers. He set up the company up on April Fools’ Day 1996. Profile Books has been small publisher of the year three times (the only publisher to win the accolade more than once). He is a trustee of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, former Chairman of the Jewish Community Centre for London, a non-executive director of Rare, a diversity recruitment business, and a visiting professor at City University, London.

Andrew Franklin’s authors at Profile include Alan Bennett, Francis Fukuyama, Wole Soyinka, Raja Shehadeh, Susie Orbach and Lynne Truss, whose book Eats, Shoots and Leaves sold over 1.4 million copies in hardback and over 3 million worldwide. Unlike many independent publishers, Profile has been consistently profitable since its second year and grown continuously. This is despite its commitment to publishing original, stimulating and sometimes challenging non-fiction. In 2007 Profile acquired the distinguished independent (and independent minded) publisher Serpent’s Tail. Serpent’s Tail, 25 years old in 2011, publishes Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, sales of which now approach one million copies, three Nobel Laureates and a distinguished list of literature in translation. Profile started with three people and now employs 30, including two interns at a time - the only fully paid (including holiday pay) internship scheme in London trade publishing.

This event is supported by Polity Press.


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