PUBLISHERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! Looking for a New Model of Publishing in Late Capitalism

I have to admit I approached publishing as a field, a discipline, a calling, with a kind of naïve idealism. To be a facilitator! A curator! A champion of art, literature, and unheard voices! This seemed to be all there was to it. Find good work, be the platform from which to launch the work. And then I read the following line in Richard Nash’s article “What is Business of Literature?”:

“Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism, they virtually began it. They are part of the fuel that drives it.”

One pauses.

One reads on.

“The growth of the chain model in books offered the twentieth-century public the opportunity to decry the groceryfication of the bookstore, utterly belying the reality…that the bookstore is in fact the model for the supermarket.”

Reading this made me uncomfortable, a little bit nauseated, and strangely intrigued, but at first I couldn’t tell you why. Isn’t the widened distribution of literature–or science, knitting, or anything that might be contained between two boards and a spine–a good thing? That a public might be able to obtain and then learn from a book virtually any topic they desired? Or, as Nash mentions, be empowered and inspired to write those books they themselves can’t find? I realise capitalism is the underpinning of these apparent benefits–but where has capitalism gotten us? Contemporary philosopher Bernard Stiegler posits a “decadence of industrial democracy” has led to societal disenchantment and a “capitalism without motivation” (131). The rapid and barrier-free circulation of commodities “comes to replace the circulation of the works of spirit”; that is, of individual and social knowledge (132). Stiegler argues this loss of spirit has led to irrationality, the loss of hope, and a disintegration of collective individuation–actual community connection (133).  

This disillusionment is not something only philosophers have noticed. Dissatisfaction with the present political and market power structure, the largest income gap in modern memory, and the feeling of powerlessness in the face of faceless corporations has manifested in the social movements and increasing popularity of socialist and populist political platforms in recent memory. I would also argue that the recent trend freelancing and participation in the gig economy for Millenials has been a reaction and possibly failed experiment response to mainstream corporate ethos and working conditions.

So what does this have to do with publishing? In the realest sense, the corporate control of content, “governed by profitability rather than politics”  is a dangerous but all too common thing in the case of the “Big 5” publishing conglomerates (Squires 22).  If publishing was truly one of the forebears of modern capitalism, as Nash suggests, and if capitalism is a factor that has thrown the global mood into this malaise of spirit–not to mention the suppression of knowledge–doesn’t publishing as a field have the unique opportunity to serve culture and counteract this current iteration of capitalism at the same time? Allow me for a moment again to be naïvely idealistic (and let’s face it, a little bit socialist) to suggest that a co-operatively owned, socially-inspired mode of framing, filtering, and amplifying content might be an answer to our capitalist problems and the “radical agent of change” that Nash calls for (Bhaskar 6).

 

Let’s first imagine what an ideal co-operative publishing house might look like. A co-operative business can be most easily summed up as one which is owned and operated either by its own workers or by its members (“Why?”). When the editors, marketers, designers, and producers of a co-op have equal stake, collaborative control and a say in what is produced, their needs as producers and the needs of their mandate come first; stake can also be held by members of the community.  A co-op’s prime interest would not be maximal profit for external shareholders and so in its nature avoids the exploitation of labour, material, or content, as might be the case with a typical private or public investor-owned corporation. To put it another way, work and production do not necessarily become a means to maximum profit, but a means to themselves, and inherently, quality output. In this model there could also be the elimination of the need for freelance labour, or rather, someone working on limited projects could still ostensibly be involved in ownership or collaboration of the business; the amount of output made for the company would directly reflect a worker’s input to operations.

It sounds great, in a vacuum. One of the biggest challenges in starting a socially-owned publishing operation in the present day is that the backdrop against which this company is set is still a capitalist one. The “Big 5” publishing firms in North America, as they’ve been coined, aren’t going communal anytime soon. On the flipside, would you be surprised that in research for this topic, existing models of publishers functioning today under a self-proclaimed “communal” or “co-operative” business model are not exactly numerous?

 

One striking example is BC’s own New Society Publishers. What started as a Canadian branch of an American anti-war publisher, Judith and Chris Plant directed New Society from Gabriola Island for over 20 years. Running widely off their own steam to become internationally-recognized for their list of progressive and environmentally-focused non-fiction titles, the Plants sold the company to become an imprint of Vancouver’s Douglas & McIntyre in 2008 (Plant). When Douglas & McIntyre itself went under in 2012, the Plants and employees of New Society scrambled to keep the business alive. Enter stage left Carol Newell, philanthropist, who had the means and passion to help keep New Society afloat, and by the same stroke, trigger the next business model: an employee trust, a three-way split of the company between Newell, the Plants, and the employees (“People”). Written into this new form was also space for a representative of the employee’s trust to sit on the board of directors, ensuring the employee’s rights and a hand in the direction of New Society. It seems that the cooperative model has worked well for New Society, especially as it allows the publisher to adhere to company mandate of best environmental and social practices, facts which are proudly broadcast as part of the New Society brand (“About Us”).  

Other examples can be found in niches of clearly progressive, leftist and anarchist content; there is also a growing movement to build open access networks of scholarly and peer-reviewed texts with the mandate of freeing discourse from institutions. For the purpose of my exploration I have to put them to the side: the medium is a little too much the message. If we’re going to think about shifting to a co-operative model of publishing, we have to think of a broader audience and simply cannot ignore how little precedent exists for publishing fiction.

 

Therefore, we need to move a little bit outside the model to find a place to start from in the present landscape. Enter Room, a Vancouver-based feminist literary journal, which has been run by a small staff and a large collective editorial board since 1975. The collective means that each issue is headed by a different editorial team, effectively sharing the load and keeping overhead low; editors are provided an honorarium, staff are often wearing multiple hats, and the rest is filled in by volunteer passion (“About Room”). However, at the end of summer 2017 Room released a call-to-action: due to lower-than-expected revenues and a change in website operation, Room needed to reach out to its community for donations and boost at least 200 subscriptions. In their campaign, publisher and managing editor Meghan Bell and Chelene Knight point out other CanLit journals who have run the risk of folding in recent years: Descant, when their Canada Council funding was reduced; and The Capilano Review, when the journal ceased to receive backing from its partner institution Capilano University and also launched a crowdfunding campaign. For Room, like The Capilano Review, the effort worked; Room received $500 above its $5000 fundraising goal; Capilano received enough donations to effectively cover their first year’s operational start-up costs (Bell).  The results are heartening; when called upon, the community banded behind these two publications because, for them, content and the circulation of culture won out.

However, I hesitate to celebrate too soon. Between the three examples I have briefly described–New Society Publishers, Room, and The Capilano Review–all three are running only after a brush with insolvency and the saving swoop of one–or a hundred– collective-minded folk who believe in the core mandate of each project. How many other collective or co-operative publishing initiatives have had similar trajectories? Is this trajectory necessary for a publishing project to move from capitalist to co-operative model? Each publisher had the clout of over 20 years of production behind them; partnering through an angel investor or crowd-sourced funds are there exactly because the projects were deemed worthy to keep alive (and rightly so). Perhaps I have to adjust my own thinking: that a co-operative cannot spring out of the ground fully formed, but is something slower and more organic, the product of years of brand-building, hard work and the coalition of like minds.

 

Perhaps then the most hopeful way forward is not co-operation within a company, but between companies. The Meet the Presses Collective of small and independent literary presses in Toronto collaborates to put forward curated public events, notably the Indie Literary Market, that allows collective members to market new or undistributed publications directly to the reader. In parallel and an ocean away, business analysts have noted the growing trend in European premium publishers (primarily media outlets) forming coalitions to collectively run through surplus advertising inventory and accurately scale audience segments (Shields). Small publishers can remain small and in control of their practice and mandate when they band together. The support network created can act in a co-operative way, at least for the distributive and funding aspects of publishing. In the digital age where networks between geographically-distant bodies are not only possible but readily accessible, it isn’t hard to imagine this as a model for a future social publisher.

 

I feel the need to clarify my situation in context of all of this: I am a white settler-Canadian female who has had lived most of her life in the benefit of both capitalism and social programs. I have had the privilege of being able to pursue higher education, of travelling freely, of living comfortably and having my basic human needs supported by my government’s social policies. I’ve been able to read what I’ve desired to read. I’ve had it really good. However, my relative privilege enables me to see the disastrous effects capitalism has wrought upon marginalised peoples (colonialism), the global environment (globalisation), and the collective psyche (deindividuation). As a result I can’t help but feel both the numbness Stiegler describes,  as well as a deep anger and dissatisfaction at the continuation of such blatant exploitation. But I really do think that we are at a moment of change, though it might be incremental, and I have to believe Publishing as a field has a role to play. Publishing is foremost about content and distribution, and so by beginning to work through publishing models, I am staking my position and starting the steps of what might be a life’s work, or at the very least a practice’s guiding principle. It’s hardly possible to find one answer to the problem of capitalism by the end of this essay. What I have begun to find, however, are new ideas of modelling the kind of industry I want to live in: one in which communities and networks truly support each other, content is valued appropriately, and human and natural resources are not exploited in the interest of profit margins. The next step is to start building.

Works Cited

  • “About.” Meet the Presses Collective. <meetthepresses.wordpress.com/about> Accessed o1 Oct 2017.
  • “About Room.” Room Magazine. The West Coast Feminist Literary Magazine Society. <roommagazine.com/about>. Accessed 01 Oct 2017.
  • Bell, Meghan and Chelene Knight. “We Need Your Help.” Room Magazine. The West Coast Feminist Literary Magazine Society. <roommagazine.com/subscription-drive-2017> Accessed 01 Oct 2017.
  • Bhaskar, Michael. The Content Machine. Anthem Press, 2013. pp. 6, 80.
  • Nash, Richard. “What is the Business of Literature?” VQR Online, Spring 2013. <www.vqronline.org/articles/what-business-literature> Accessed 27 Sep 2017.
  • “People, Planet and Profit in Publishing.” National Observer (Sponsored Content). Dec 2016. <www.nationalobserver.com/2016/12/12/people-planet-and-profit-publishing> Accessed 01 Oct 2017.
  • Plant, Chris. “From Candlelight to Leading Lights.” BC Bookworld, Summer 2009. pp. 22-23.
  • Stiegler, Bernard. “Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals: Disbelief and Discredit [Excerpt]” trans. Daniel Ross. The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 23 no. 44-45 (2012-2013). <tidsskrift.dk/nja/article/view/8185> pp. 129-134.
  • Squires, Clare. Marketing Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. pp. 22-24
  • Shields, Ronan. “‘Better Together?’–The Publisher Co-op Model Explored.” Exchange Wire. Feb 2015. <www.exchangewire.com/blog/2015/02/04/better-together-publisher-co-op-model-explored> Accessed 01 Oct 2017.
  • “Why Start a Co-operative?” Canada Business Network. The Government of Canada. <canadabusiness.ca/blog/why-start-a-co-operative-1> Accessed 01 Oct 2017.

Works Consulted

One Response to PUBLISHERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! Looking for a New Model of Publishing in Late Capitalism

  1. tmcgrath says:

    The premise that publishing can become co-operative is intriguing, but it has the same flaw (and maybe the same solution) as my premise did: where is the incentive? The argument that I see you are making is that there is a moral imperative to turn away from capitalism, that we as “the industry” can and should do it. However, moral superiority isn’t going to convince the companies who are making enough money to matter. It looks like a lot of the examples you have of co-operatively run publishers are doing so out of need rather than desire in most instances; they turned to the communal accountability because they couldn’t have been successful otherwise. They had the incentive. House of Anansi, ECW, any of the Big 5 — they’re the publishers that have the cultural clout to perpetuate change. But they’re making money, and as Sir Stanley Unwin put it, “A publisher’s first duty is to remain solvent.”

    You mention open access in the scholarly sector for a brief moment then disregard it, but I think that the idea of open access deserves a little more thought as a possible solution. It’s true that a lot of the work being done with open access and free digital publishing is specifically intended to facilitate and improve discourse in academia, but it’s perpetuated the trend in the trade sector as well. A 2010 study found that books available in digital version for free online generally had higher trending print sales in comparison to books that weren’t (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jep/3336451.0013.101?view=text;rgn=main Hilton & Wiley). Their case study included non-fiction and fiction books. It also, notably, included Penguin Random House — a Big 5 company. Because publishers were still profiting off of the process, they had the incentive to make the content free.

    Now, it’s still a capitalist-driven model, but it’s a step in the right direction. I think the end-goal is there: create quality content for the sake of the content and growth of the society rather than the growth of the profit. What Hilton & Wiley are talking about is a bit of a compromise, but enough of one that actual progress is more than just a moral compass tugging at our insides. It’s also worth noting that Canada is, especially with the government grant programs, about a thousand times more socialist than the United States. Cooperative business models may be possible with that kind of funding, but is it a sustainable goal in terms of global market competition? The chances of the cooperative model catching on in the US are slim to none, and America is Canada’s #1 competition with regards to pricing. If the focus isn’t on “profitability rather than politics,” as Squires put it, it’s possible the business may fail altogether in the face of bigger, hungrier publishers.

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