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Publishers are Shapers of History Essay

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Updated: Jun 7th, 2019

It is common knowledge that publishing firms employ people. They have a staff that includes editors and others who are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the publishing house.[1] This means that publishing is not only about books but also about the business of selling books to make a profit.[2]

These areas of concern focus on the practical aspect of publishing.[3] However, publishers are not just employers and businessmen, they are also “cultural mediators and arbitrators of quality and taste.”[4] In other words publishers have the power to shape the course of history and one of the best examples can be seen in recent events when Pearson, the publishing firm that owns Financial Times and Penguin decided to withhold the payment of dividend to Libyan Investment Authority on moral grounds.[5]

According to Thompson there are four types of resources that publishing companies possess and these are: economic capital, human capital, symbolic capital and intellectual capital.[6] The economic and human capital are aspects of the business that are tangible and easily recognisable by the general public.

This includes the buildings where the offices can be found. This also includes the facilities and the equipment needed to publish books. The human capital on the other hand are the people involved in the business and make it possible for the firm to do all the labour needed turn manuscripts into books and deliver to the hands of the consumers.

In the first two resources that was discussed a publisher is seen as both an employer and a risk taker. There is a need to learn the intricacies of managing people, hiring and replacing those that are no longer effective in their work. A good hire will increase the economic and human capital of the firm. In addition the publisher will have to manage the office, the facilities needed for publishing work and other material needed by the firm.

This means that a publisher is the major risk taker in the said venture. He or she must learn how to make it work to succeed in the business or face financial ruin. However, making money and managing people are just part of the publishers major responsibilities. In order to sustain success a publisher must realise that there is a need to be mindful of the firm’s symbolic capital or how they outside world perceived the firm. This is true when it comes to current trends and issues that has to be addressed etc.

A publisher has the power to shape culture and history. This can be achieved in two major ways. First, a publisher can choose what issues to support and what issues to condemn. Second, a publisher has the power to hire and support a particular writer while make it difficult for another to succeed.

This is true for publishing firms that are already on top of the literary world. Imagine for instance that a powerful publishing firm decided to support an idea, runs with it and throws all its resources behind its promotion. Books will be published of course and when the book is successful the firm can even collaborate with film studios and create a film. This will further enhance the potency of the message and increase the scope of its influence.

The publisher can also choose the writer whom it will groom and develop into a powerful dispenser of ideas. Imagine once again if a publishing firm chooses to support a controversial author and provide that person a platform from which he or she can express ideas that can change the world.

This is the power of the publishing firm and of course the publisher. However, the most important aspect of this idea is the fact that publishers are conscious of this power. They are not oblivious to their capacity to impact culture and shape the opinions of people. In some cases the publisher feel that it is their responsibility to be painfully aware of their power. The same thing can be attributed to the leaders and publishers that belong to the Pearson group.

The recent spate of headlines made it clear that the dictator that controls Libya is willing to bring the country down in flames and bloodshed. The whole world seems helpless as the only thing that can be done is to facilitate the repatriation of foreigners and assisting refugees that are fleeing out of the country.

However, the Pearson group made a stand and they said that they will not pay the dividend owed to the Libyan Investment Authority for obvious reasons. It is a daring move and many people in the free world will undoubtedly applaud such actions.

On the other hand the words of Thompson reverberates because he did not only say that publishers are merchants of culture and arbitrators of social values, he also said that publishers and publishing firms are in the business of making money. This issue is made more complicated when viewed from a corporate standpoint because a publisher is not the sole owner of the company.

There are shareholders. Thus, even if a publisher felt that it is proper to do a heroic deed by bending the rules to teach a Libyan despot a lesson about the importance of human life, there are conflicts of interests that must be resolved. There is now a tension between the need to influence society and the need to make money and demonstrate financial responsibility. This is evident in the press statement released by Pearson:

It’s abhorrent to us, what is happening in Libya. We have made it pretty clear we are uncomfortable with the holding, but we work in a public market company and we don’t choose our shareholders; our shareholders choose the company, so there is not a lot we can do.[7]

It is clear that the publishers at Pearson worried about the impact of their action. They know that people can criticise them. Those who support the Libyan government will probably sue them in the court of law. It is therefore important to point out that Pearson was careful to demonstrate that their hands are tied because of recent developments and recent regulations that were made with regards to the crisis developing in the Middle-East, especially in Libya.

They were careful to protect their interests but at the same time it is clear that Pearson exercised its power. The firm is conscious of its social capital and this means that its leaders and publishers were willing to do something that they believe is right even if it they will have to pay a steep price for such actions.


The business aspect of publishing is easy to understand. Books cost money to print and market. There is a need to maintain human capital and the publisher had to have solid skills in money management in order to run a company. However, publishing books is not just about making money. Publishers are aware of their social capital and they know that to some extent they have the power to shape history.

This was in full display a few days earlier when Pearson, owner of the Financial Times and Penguin, decided to block the dividend payment to an investment company linked to Libya’s dictator. They made a statement that they were not happy with the bloodshed and all the negative things that are happening in Libya. This is a prime example that a publisher or a publishing company is not just an employer and an investor, it is also in the business of changing the world.


Andrews, A. & R. Cooper. Pearson Blocks Dividend Payment to Libyan Investment Authority. Available from: <>. [01 March 2011].

Greco, A. (2005). The Book Publishing Industry. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Thompson, J. (2010). Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Thornton, P. (2004). Markets from Culture: Institutional Logics and Organisational Decision in Higher Education Publishing. CA: Stanford University Press.

Yager, F. & L. Touby. (2010). Career Opportunities in the Publishing Industry. New York: Infobase Publishing.


  1. Yager & Touby (2010), p.154
  2. Greco (2005), p.3.
  3. Thornton (2004), p.38.
  4. Thompson (2010), p.32.
  5. Andrews & Cooper (2011), p.1.
  6. Thompson, p.30.
  7. Andrews & Cooper, p.1.
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