This month’s Gateway online features James Leatham’s classic pamphlet, ‘Factors of Civilization’. This is a very thought provoking pamphlet – and I’d recommend reading it all (even the bits you disagree with!) Indeed some paragraphs had me getting very hot under the collar (The Doric especially) and calling Leatham for a turncoat – until I read to the end of the paragraph and realised he has a point!
That’s the great thing about Leatham, because he is writing and publishing ‘without fear or favour’ he can say controversial things and challenge us to engage with them. There’s a good deal of sense in what he says and as he points out in his patriotism – perhaps if we don’t like the way things are, it’s up to us to do something to change that!
If you also read Leatham’s cultural offering this month ‘John Barbour: Father of English Poetry’ I am fairly sure you will not come through without feeling Leatham abounds in contradiction. Think a bit more deeply and you may find that contradiction lies within yourself. It is, I suggest, part of the human condition.
It should go without saying (for fear of being accused of contradiction) I have ‘issues’ with Leatham saying things like:
‘All good literature would die if people of taste and enthusiasm did not keep quoting and praising the masters of it. The public really prefers skimble-skamble stuff, provided it be new.’
Yet there is part of this I agree with. Take out the ‘good’ and lose the final sentence and I have less problem. Really he’s saying ‘praise what is worthy as a means of keeping it alive.’ That’s not quite so bad (though we do have to agree on what ‘worthy’ means. In its entirety the quotation seems like a really classist statement to me – I either have to think that Leatham was in fact a cultural snob – or perhaps I need to understand history better.
Perhaps the context in which this was written and the context in which I receive it are not just worlds away but almost incompatible, or inconceivably different. The lines of communication are definitely flawed in some respect. But that does not, in my opinion, mean one should dismiss either this statement, or its place in the entirety of its essay.
For a start, taking things out of context – which most quoting does – is a tricky game. The soundbite is not reliable. And reading an essay is a skill, which requires a level of concentration and an active engagement (including disagreeing) with the argument put forward. We should not be afraid of that or shy away from it. We should not dismiss someone’s argument because there are bits we don’t like. Or even damn it completely because we see contradictions. No one is in a position of full knowledge and therefore our most deeply held convictions are always open to charges of weakness, often contradiction, when viewed from a different perspective. The important thing, surely, is the creative communicative act that occurs when reading – finding out how another person sees the world – even, and perhaps especially when this challenges your world view – is a valuable part of life in general and reading in particular.
Which brings me on to the central point of this month’s editorial. Freedom (and fairness) of publishing. Not freedom of the press per se, but of the act of publishing. The ubiquitous cliché ‘publish and be damned’ is no longer worth the consideration it has been given. For me, as for Leatham, I choose a new stance and it is ‘publishing is an adventure.’
We are, in case you hadn’t noticed it, living in the middle of a publishing revolution. It used to be said that everyone has a novel (or book) in them. Now everyone, with minimal skill, effort can publish that book at virtually no financial cost. Whether this is a good thing or not is a very complex issue.
The freedom to publish allows creativity to flourish. It also potentially drowns us in poor quality reading material. I could direct you to the Orraman’s article last month on reading (or not) Sir Walter Scott, to start dealing with the thorny question of what is ‘good’ in relation to reading matter.
For me, publishing has been about profit and product for far too long. I believe it should be about choice and creativity. I do not intend to bang on about the bad state of ‘traditional’ publishing – life is too short – and it simply diverts from my central premise.
I am more interested in discussing what level of awareness there is (or isn’t) amongst the general reader about things such as the ‘bestseller’ culture? Most people I speak to are woefully unaware of the ‘pay to play’ aspect to publishing. Most people are woefully ignorant of publishing at all when it comes down to it. For the most part they don’t care where their reading material comes from – who made it (even who wrote it) and who brings it to the bookshelf. All most people seem to care about is ‘is it good.’ And by this they mean ‘is it popular’ and by this they mean ‘will people laugh/scorn/denigrate/stigmatise me if I say I like this.’
I ask: Was the genie let out of the bottle with Fifty Shades? Is this the kind of book we have all secretly been wishing for our whole lives? Or was it the mother of all marketing campaigns. Yes, forgive me, in the world of capitalism, the altruist becomes a cynic.
I further suggest that readers need to open their mind not just to what they consume but where they find what they consume, and they need to question whether they are really making choices or are being ‘sold’ to.
It’s a classic freewill/ determinism dilemma. We all want to believe that we are making choices in our reading matter – but we tie our identity (especially our social identity) up with being acceptable to our group. If that ‘tribe’ is aspirational then we want to read ‘literary fiction’ and nothing but ‘literary fiction’ will do.
Highbrow readers do not want to read ‘popular’ fiction – but in fact what the marketeers have achieved is making a range of ‘populars.’ The popular is no more than the group acceptability factor made concrete. If all your friends like something you like it too. If that is a police procedural, or a cosy crime, or chic lit all well and good. It’s fashion folks. And it’s fast fashion. These days one season we are being sold sado-masochistic erotica and the next season it will be bodice ripper historical. Now fantasy, now sci-fi. Genre is king in the publishing hierarchy. You’ve got to be able to pigeonhole your book in order that you can create your cult of readers. In the modern world, of course, mutating genre and creating transgenre genres is also all the rage. But the key commonality is that all these are ‘created’ – and not by the author. They are branding exercises. And while branding may be a creative endeavour, it’s not the kind of creativity I’m interested in. Branded fiction is all the rage - don’t get me started on ‘celebrity’ fiction.
So where are we with all this? My point is simply that it’s time to wake up and realise that the profiteer publishers are selling to you, not offering you a free choice. And it’s been going on so long that people are losing the ability to make a choice.
The choices we think we have are: – shall we read it as hardback (showing our high status) paperback or ebook? Will we pay £20 or £10 or Free, or will we even find our books in the library? Will we get our fiction from the charity shops, or from Amazon online? But these are essentially choices of delivery platform. Surely more important is WHAT we are reading and what choice we have in the whole affair.
Active choice means engagement. In modern publishing this means navigating many shark infested waters. Whose recommendation can you take at face value? Reviews of ‘indie’ writers books by other ‘indie’ writers (who we assume may also be readers) are often denigrated and indeed the whole ‘indie’ movement is subject to the cry: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. It’s a cry issued by the gatekeepers and those with a vested interest in reducing YOUR choice.
For me, if there is vanity in publishing it is in publishing something that is not worth reading. But what is not worth reading?
In actuality, perhaps the vanity from the perspective of a writer is in thinking that you can make a living as an author. That you ‘deserve’ to make a living as an author. That what you have to say is interesting enough or important enough for the whole world to want to read. Or worse still, the belief that the whole world NEEDS to read what you write. But this vanity is embedded into the aspirational capitalist nature of our society. It’s what keeps the wheels of industry (and publishing) turning – but it is not the best friend of the reader.
Traditional mainstream publishing is a very small fish pond. Or perhaps better viewed as the top of a pyramid structure. The ‘lucky’ or privileged few get to publish ‘properly’ with the endorsement of the elite power structure and the rest are only expected to engage by reading the work of the elite.
Well, if we peasants start revolting they have other ways to get our money off us. They may help us to spend our money publishing ourselves, and they’ll take our money off us to market ourselves – but we are swimming against a very big tide. We are low down in the pyramid structure – and they keep us waiting to throw a six to get onto the snakes and ladders board of life.
Publishing success lies in finding the people who want to read what you write. But for all too long this has been mediated by the elite. And they are not going to let their grip go easily. This is the real crux of the dilemma at the heart of ‘the publishing revolution.’
And I can’t help but think that we should be focussing on other issues in this publishing revolution of course. Perhaps we should be looking at both environmental and cultural issues.
There is a strong environmental argument for Print on Demand technology for one thing. And for digital content. We all know that the ‘ereaders’ and ‘technology’ carries its own environmental ‘footprint’ but this is not a good argument to maintain an outmoded method of printing which sees thousands of books pulped and remaindered just so that in the first instance they can be printed ‘for peanuts.’ There is a third way. Print on Demand offers the best practice example of publishing. But it is being hijacked by unscrupulous pseudo publishers who are offering ‘reprints’ at over inflated prices, which are essentially just photocopies (usually poor ones) slapped between covers. And this poor quality threatens the progress of the genuine opportunities offered to authors and publishers by the true Print on Demand model. Digital publishing is the future, in all its formats, but it offers a great threat to the traditional models of publishing. For that reason alone we should embrace it. But not be fooled. eBooks should not cost £5 and they certainly shouldn’t cost £50 as I saw one academic publication priced recently. The pricing wars in ebook publishing are simply reflective of the traditional powerhouses trying to undermine the freedom of the masses. The costs of producing ebooks (especially where a print book exists) are minimal. The potential profits are huge. The traditional mainstream publishers still have to work out how best to maximise this profit – and we as customer are very vulnerable at the moment. We are guinea pigs in the market.
Consider the costs of printing: (The article on Spending a Penny is worth a look in this regard) Printing 1 book is expensive. Printing 10 equally so. Printing 100 still makes the cost too high for ‘the market’ to bear. Print 1000 and you are starting to see a profit on a book of £8.99. Print 10,000 and you can push your book out into all the stores at £3.99. But is a £3.99 book better than an £8.99 book? In any way. And simply being able to produce many books cheaply irrespective of the environmental wastage of this model must be considered as unsustainable. Again, there is a whole other article on this, so I won’t go into it in depth just now. Suffice it to say: there is no fair trade in books.
Publishing has not been about the creator (or one might suggest the consumer) but about profit for the market driven capitalists. Yet writing is a creative act. Publishing has been and sadly all too often remains the commercialisation of that creativity. In a capitalist model, exploitation is bound to follow. What about a non-exploitative publishing? What is the possibility of considering non-commercial creativity as a success? Is this plain madness? It’s another issue to consider – again beyond the boundaries of this article. I’m just trying to make you start thinking – start questioning – start making choices.
We do well to remember that what is important in books is the CONTENT and that the ‘delivery platform’ is less so. These days we can take 1000s of books with us wherever we go on a device which weighs less than any paperback. Indeed, we can actually take 10,000 books with us on a micro SD card (you just need to find a place to ‘plug and play’ and that is all an ereader or tablet is – a plug and play device). As technology improves maybe soon we’ll just carry our media ‘libraries’ with us on portable flash drives and plug into whatever techno- receptor is available wherever we are. Hardware and software companies, like the publishers, are fighting to maintain their control and their profit-driven businesses in the face of a revolution many of us are not even aware we are part of.
It’s happened with music. It’s happening with video. And like it or not, books are just another option in the plug and play world. They’re not always the sexiest option -perhaps that’s why erotica is being marketed heavily these days – the marketeers are desperate to keep books sexy! Some of us might just see through that. There are, believe it or not, other reasons to read.
We are really lucky in the early 21st century because we have access to the most incredibly diverse range of reading material in the history of history. We are cursed because we have forgotten how to make active choices. While we prefer spoon feeding, or need to look over our shoulder as to whether our choices make us socially acceptable, we are more impoverished than the illiterate peasant of earlier times. Access isn’t everything. Low price isn’t everything.
Even if we have the ability to make an informed choice about what we read, the bookmarks are stacked against us. Unless you start from the position that the books you REALLY want to read may well be invisible and you are going to have to hunt them down, then you will never reach your potential as a 21st century reader. You can be one of the beautiful people. You might be one of the rich, or successful or intellectual or cultured elite. But you are living in poverty all the same.
Poverty of creative expression is a real issue. Which is why I encourage anyone and everyone who wants to publish, to do so. There are many reasons for publishing and the vanity is in the reason for writing, not in the writing itself.
Reading and writing have become slaves of capitalism and commerce. That is simply a fact. And the real publishing revolution lies in freeing books and their readers (in whatever format) from the shackles of ‘good’ and ‘bestselling’ and taking them into the world of creativity and choice.
In conclusion I have no more to say than that I believe reading the articles in this month’s Gateway are a step in the right direction towards opening the mind, challenging one’s beliefs and at times prejudices, and embarking on a more active, choice-driven pattern of reading. And it won’t have cost you a penny. The profit is all yours.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.