Where did all these books come from? The publishing industry and American intellectual life

Maro Asadoorian

Document Type Dissertation/Thesis


The American book publishing industry shapes the character of American intellectual life. While the newspaper and television industries have been accused of and investigated for bias and lowering America's intellectual standards, book publishing has gone largely unexamined by scholars. The existing studies of the publishing industry have focused on finance, procedure and history. "There are few 'theories' of publishing -- efforts to understand the 'whys' as well as the 'hows.' Few scholarly scientists have devoted significant scholarly attention to publishing" (Altbach and Hoshino, xiii). There are many possible reasons for this lacuna. First, there is a perception that books have always been around, that they are an "old" technology and therefore they don't appear to have had as much of an impact on our society as television and other media (which were developed quickly and suddenly) seem to have had (Altbach and Hoshino, xiv). Also, despite books' present and past popularity, television, radio, and now the internet reach more people more easily, and are therefore more topical points of study and observation. In studying the effects of mass media on everyday American life, television and the internet may be the most logical points of study. Regarding public intellectual life however, books play a much more important role. Public intellectual life has always been associated with independent thinkers publishing their work for the masses. For this reason, this I focus on trade publishing. Trade publishing produces fiction and non-fiction works for the general reading public, as opposed to technical manuals, textbooks, and other fiction and nonfiction books targeted to small and specific audiences. Although, quantitatively speaking, "the largest part of book publishing business is embodied in that great complex of companies and activities producing educational, business, scientific, technical, and reference books and materials," (Tebbel 1987, 439) the trade industry publishes most of the books that most people read. It is the most public segment of the industry, and the most likely place to find public intellectualism. Trade publishing is not only the most public segment of the industry, but it is also the most susceptible to corruption and lowered intellectual standards. Unlike specialty publishing, which caters to a specific, known segment of society, trade publishers must compete with countless other publications, as well as with other forms of media, for the patronage of the general public. As John Tebbel (author of a widely referenced history of the publishing industry) puts it, "The textbook, scientific, or technical book is subjected to much more rigorous scrutiny by buyers and users, and in an intensively competitive market inferior products are quickly lost" (Tebbel 1987, xiv). Since the standards for trade publishing are not nearly as specific -- trade books simply need to catch the attention of a significant number of readers, they don't have to measure up to a given level of quality -- the quality of trade books is much more variable. And yet, a successful trade publication can have a much greater impact on society than the most rigorously researched and edited textbook or scholarly study.