In defence of book publishing

By Niamh Cullen

A new utopian world awaits all us avid readers, I learnt today. The tyranny of publishers and bookshops will soon be a thing of the past. Thanks to the internet, and the opportunities that it offers for electronic publishing, authors no longer need traditional – or any – publishers. Gone are the days when the profit hungry publishers and booksellers exploited writers by packaging and selling their creative output, while giving far too little in return. Now, authors themselves control the industry, because they alone write the words that sell the volumes. “Content is king, and only authors provide the content.”

Since printing presses are expensive pieces of equipment, and require specialised training to use, self publishing for authors has always been an expensive and complex route. Not only this, but once a couple of hundred copies of your masterpiece have been printed, how does the enterprising author persuade the public to buy his tome? He is, again at the mercy of the book trade, as he has to negotiate with bookshops in order to persuade them to stock it on their shelves. No longer. Now, with just the click of a button, anyone can upload the word file containing their novel, esoteric study or polemic to the internet. Potential readers will find the ‘book’ by means of a keyword search and will download it themselves cutting out the need for any kind of middle man – literary agent, publisher, bookshop.

I hope that I’m not the only one to find this picture a little grim, and the new relationship between author and public, reader and book – recognition by keyword search; downloading a word file – just a bit cold. I came across this article through a link on my twitter feed on Saturday, where just such a bold vision was outlined. Now, I know that the publishing industry and book trade don’t really need me to stand up for them, but as someone who has no vested interest other than a love of books, I thought I would try to respond.

I may be a little naïve, but I do believe that most publishers, editors and independent booksellers are in the business they are in not because they want to make a huge profit, but because they love books. Profit is necessary of course, in order to keep the business afloat; the more popular titles often allow a publisher to invest in valuable works that will inevitably sell fewer copies. Book are at the heart of the editor’s job, and out of the piles of the manuscripts that arrive on his or her desk every week, there is always the hope of discovering that one that will make literary history – that will sell, yes, but that will also enthuse, impress and educate its readers; that will be remembered far beyond that year or even that generation. The art of ‘discovering’ new literature; of recognising and making judgements as to what books are worth championing, is almost as valuable as that of the writer.

Publishing; that is choosing what books to publish and how to publish them, can also be a bold political statement, even a revolutionary one. When publisher Allen Lane launched his Penguin Modern Classics paperback series in 1935, he changed the face of publishing. Up to then books were expensive to buy and usually only available in hardback; by selling them for just sixpence and ensuring that they were stocked in railway stations and newsagents, he ensured that a whole new section of the population bought and read these modern literary classics.

Publishing could also be a more dangerous and overtly political action. The young Italian antifascist editor and publisher Piero Gobetti was convinced – perhaps naively – that the Italian people were in desperate need of a proper literary and political education. To this end, he published translations of European literature in Italian – to convince his readers to forsake the inward looking nationalism of fascist Italy – as well as more overtly political works. It was through book and magazine publishing, rather than politics that he fought the rise of Mussolini in the Italy of the early 1920s. The fact that he died in 1926, at the age of 24, after he was forced to close down his publishing house and move to Paris, is stark testament to the political power of books. Later in the twentieth century, another Italian publisher Giangacomo Feltrinelli (whose bookstores can now be seen in every Italian town and city) took another great political risk by agreeing to publish the novel of a Russian author who was at that stage little known outside the Soviet Union. A Communist sympathiser, although a maverick one, Feltrinelli was the only publisher willing to take a chance on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Unable to publish the book in Russia as Pasternak was seen as suspect by Stalin, it was first published in Italian translation in 1957 under the Feltrinelli insignia. While it rapidly became a publishing sensation in the West, Doctor Zhivago eventually became a symbol of dissidence in the Soviet Union too.

I may be biased about all this, as I have spent quite a few years researching and writing the history of editors and publishers. However, I do think their role is essential in the world of books. The idea of writers uploading their books to the internet and readers simply finding them by searching is a chaotic one, as well a cold and uninviting one. Endless information and ‘content’ is not exactly a good thing, when no one has the time to sift through hundreds and thousands of uploaded novels to find the good ones themselves. A publisher’s insignia, like a good book review, is a mark of quality and confidence. Likewise, a bookshop, and especially an independent one, is a small, friendly space in which to browse, and perhaps seek advice on books. Although online magazines, newspapers and blogs clearly have a place – and a valuable one – in the literary world of the twenty-first century, I hope that nothing can ever replace publishers, paperbacks and dusty bookshelves.

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5 Responses to In defence of book publishing

  1. Conor says:

    The parallels with the music industry in this are worth noting. The ease and affordability of recording and publishing music has, some people would say, resulted in a lack of quality control and a glut of content. On the flip side it could be argued that the cream always rises to the top and that traditional financial barriers to making your music available have been removed. What is certain is that the big record labels are no longer seen as an exclusive necessity for up-and-coming bands who want to record and release their music.

    On the consumer side traditional independent records stores are being forced to close due to the fact that the younger generation don’t have a large attachment to the physical medium of CDs or vinyl. Even those that do desire the physical product find it easier to order from online retailers who can offer lower prices and a larger selection.

    Further parallels can be drawn with the movie industry as it moves ever closer to the inevitable living room based pay-per-view model.

  2. Patrick says:

    Spotting your reference to Allen Lane’s innovative approach to publishing, and the revolutionary moment that was Penguin, you might be interested to see that Penguin now in its 75th year is too facing challenges from the inexorable march of the ebook.

    See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/21/penguins-next-march

    On a more possitive note, it might be worth remembering the death of the book, and indeed the bookseller, has been much foretold before and yet the book remains.

  3. Gillian says:

    As long as there are children books cannot die.
    Can you imagine Peepo or Owl Babies or Dear Zoo on an ereader ?

    • Eoin Purcell says:

      Yu should check out Tumble books (they offer a free trial) and ponder again the impact of digital reading on children’s books. That said, books as physical paper objects are unlikely to be wiped out even if they are reduced to a minority of all books read and replaced by digital products.
      Eoin

  4. Pingback: Guest Column: In Defence Of Book Publishing | Irish Publishing News

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