John Thompson is taking a third look at the book business following up on his Merchants of Culture. The new edition is due next year, and a trailer appears at University of  Cambridge Research. (Link via Book Business.)

Professor Thompson quotes a modernizing publishing executive, struggling to redirect his colleagues’ minds into digital channels: “A book is not a book. Books are categories. Books are types. Books are different styles of things.” If you have had the misfortune to drift into trade publishing as a career, maybe you do have to adopt this view of things. I always regarded a book as something I’d like to read (or not) — as information waiting to be accessed.

The executive continues: “The thing that people always hoped was the digital world would get simpler and it’s actually a whole lot more complicated because your end result isn’t the same. The end result is a database, the end result is a PDF, it’s an image-based PDF, it’s an XML file, it’s an ad-based, Google-search-engine toolset – we’re going to have many more properties digitally than we possibly could have physically. We have seven physical properties [for our books] . . . and online we have hundreds of formats and types and styles.”

Of course we all got it wrong. We got it wrong in two ways. We thought print was dead; and we thought all we had to do was stop throwing away the digital files we’d already been using for a year or two to drive our typesetting systems. The result of this naivety is a mass of disks and tapes which largely verge on the useless: hardly anybody can afford to go back in and make them usable. It is always the case that going forward is simple: you just say “Store everything in this or that format” (of course you can guess the wrong format, but that’s another story).

Going back to books you’ve already dealt with presents a very different picture. For really old books (30 years or more) you have nothing but a printed book, or if you’ve failed to destroy it yet, negative film. For more recent books you may have stuff ranging from say a Wang disk which nobody now can access, to a fully-formatted typesetter’s file — formatted however for a process which won’t work when it comes to making an e-book. These older books are by definition almost all slow-sellers. Maybe they sold well when first published, but now 15 years later demand is modest to invisible. If you rush into bringing these files up to snuff, you will quickly lay out more money than you can ever expect to bring in, and this, as a business strategy is generally called bankruptcy.

I bet that most books (by numbers of titles, not by sales) will in fact never become e-books. There’s just not sufficient demand for most books published in the first half of last century or earlier for the investment to be made. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong by all the volunteers keying away at Project Gutenberg, but I think the need can be adequately and most efficiently filled by image scans and print-on-demand output. Thus every book ever written could in theory become available — just not for reading on an e-reader.

One of the problems commentators on publishing often overlook is the fact that what they are studying is not one single thing, but a collective made up of myriad separate and wildly different companies all doing their own thing. After the event it may well be possible to analyze things as categories and draw historical judgements, but making broad-brush forecasts is virtually impossible because book publishing has no central planning organization — PRH’s plans will differ from S & S’s, which will differ from The University of Chicago Press’s etc., etc. Almost all claims about what is going to happen in the future are thus no better than my speculations about human settlement on Mars or who’ll win the Premier League next season. They are guesses, and should never be treated as anything more solid than that. For folks who enjoy speculation, this provides fertile ground. As a guide to the future it’s all irrelevant. Still people will persist on doing it, and really they have every right to do so. It’s the second-level commentary I tend to object to when mud gets slung because this or that is going to happen. Stop and think. It’s probably never going to happen.

Professor Thompson has of course every right to research just trade publishing. To a large extent that is of course what people out there think of as publishing. It’s an interesting business — rather more interesting no doubt to most people than directory publishing, nursing book publishing or almost any other variety of “publishing”. But analyzing trade publishing under the label “publishing” courts and perpetuates misunderstanding. Maybe Professor Thompson can be persuaded to add the word “trade” to his subtitle The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century for this revision.