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Publishing Means Business

Publishing Means Business

An Introduction


Throughout the history of the book, publishing has been a battle-ground for the competing demands of business and culture. Authors, editors and booksellers all struggle to balance financial and cultural considerations. The struggle is a complex one, which can see the public’s desires at odds with the public good—as is evident in the competing claims of both Amazon and traditional booksellers to be representing our best interests, a problem that raises questions about the conflation of consumer and citizen in cultural and policy debates. But these tensions are not new, and can be traced back to the birth of publishing, as evidenced in early sixteenth century stoushes over monopolisation in copyright law, when booksellers argued for protected status for themselves and restricting free public access to their products—such access being ‘to the great Discouragement of persons from writing Matters that might be of great Use to the Publick’ (Parliament (Great Britain). House of Commons, 1706). Similar debates continue today: the recent Productivity Commission recommendations to reassess Australian fair dealing laws and territorial rights (PCIR 2016) again places book publishing, as a vehicle of our national cultural identity, at odds with commerce and competition. For example, mergers have created a new brand of multinational publisher—one that prioritises shareholders’ interests and eliminates risk by utilising up-to-date data to inform their publishing decisions. The emergence of Neilsen Bookscan as a contributing factor has been well documented (Magner 2012, 243), illuminating the growing influence of sales data on what had previously been considered ‘editorial’ decisions.

Where once the role of cultural intermediary was primarily the territory of professional editors, reviewers and booksellers, now we see new actors taking the stage beside them: literary agents, who often edit or direct manuscript development long before the book sees a publisher; online reviewers, who work outside the previously restricted ‘industry loop’; and self-publishing authors, who bypass gatekeepers altogether, returning to the traditional model, if they do at all, only when they have proven their value to the market. This complex tug of war continues to fascinate academics and industry professionals in the ‘post digital’ mediascape (Murray 2015, 311).

Technological disruption has also undoubtedly changed publishing. The rise of social media has transformed both the author– reader and publisher–author relationship. Developments in digital publishing have changed industry workflows, and have enabled the self-publishing revolution. And, in turn, such developments have led to the emergence of new publishishing models that have disrupted the established relationships of author, editor, publisher, printer and bookseller, and have provided fertile ground for further research.

John Thompson’s classic summary of contemporary publishing companies as ‘content-acquiring and risk-taking organizations oriented towards the production of a particular kind of cultural commodity’ (2005, 15) still rings true. But anyone who works with books— authors, publishers, editors and printers—feels acutely that, in the last decade, developments such as digital publishing and the disintermediation of a traditional publishing model have fundamentally altered the fulcrums and levers, if not the general mechanics, of the ‘post-digital’ field of publishing (Ludovico 2013, 153).

But despite the tighter focus of ‘big publishing’ on the bottom line, publishers, writers and readers are finding ways to pursue projects of cultural value. Small presses, often with tightly focused lists, are emerging as important cultural players, vying for, and winning, major awards, notably the 2016 Miles Franklin (with Alec Patric’s Black Rock, White City published by Transit Lounge). Self-publishing has flourished as a complement, rather than an alternative, to traditional publishing, with authors often shifting between models multiple times.

In our first chapter, David Throsby raises the pertinent question: ‘should the book industry be regarded as an industrial or a cultural sector?’ Throsby offers a searing critique of the Australian government’s cultural policy, which has consistently prioritised economic considerations over Australia’s cultural identity. In response to such government disregard, Throsby argues that ‘an appeal to books’ cultural value can be admitted as a valid argument for government policy concern’.

Jan Zwar explores how a rapidly changing marketplace has affected authors’ ability to publish their work. Since the collapse of RedGroup and the increased emphasis on Neilsen Bookscan as a sales guide, commercial houses have actively worked to minimise risk while maximising revenue from an increasingly limited number of titles. Despite these challenging circumstances, Zwar finds that authors have proven adaptable, discovering new ways to reach readers.

Susanne Bartscher-Finzer uses the concept of ‘proactivity’ to examine the differences between Australian and German publishing. Supported by a robust quantitative study, Bartscher-Finzer finds evidence to support her contention that the differences between the two countries’ publishers are driven by their responses to differing market dynamics and economic stimuli.

Sophie Masson focuses on the author-publisher—authors who began as self-publishers and subsequently established enterprises that publish the work of multiple authors. Mason explores how, operating in the post-digital paradigm, authors are driven to create their own publishing opportunities, bypassing the traditional publishing path. While creating exciting opportunities, the author-publisher category raises interesting questions about these new roles, such as ‘how do they negotiate the social spaces and traditionally binary intersections of creativity and production, business and art?’

Alexandra Payne presents the publisher as cartographer and curator—mapping the planning of the publishing list—a creative and inspiring position from which to view this role. Her engaging discussion of ‘whether publishers censor, influence or engender the experience of the author and reader’ highlights the adaptability of the contemporary publisher.

Emmett Stinson places the issue of Australia’s ‘cultural cringe’ in a transnational context. Stinson charts how Australian literary journals, while claiming equality with their international peers, nevertheless feel compelled to justify their value in reference to established overseas institutions and their symbolic capital—the publication of overseas writers and artists thus consecrates local content, while, symbolically, reinscribing ‘Australia’s position of inferiority within Anglophone cultural exchanges’.

Mark Davis examines the fate of literary culture in the post-digital literary field, where social media platforms engage audiences in ways new to the ‘literary sphere’. Davis finds this emerging digital literary field to be more fluid than its precursors and difficult to capture. Through his deft analysis, Davis reveals how the embrace of digital technologies both supports and compromises literary culture.

David Carter and Michelle Kelly provide a detailed analysis of the reading habits and tastes of Australian readers. The analysis is based on Carter and Kelly’s unrivalled large-scale social survey of over 1200 Australians. The research breaks down what Australians read, offering insights into how age, gender and occupation influence reading decisions.

Closing the book, Millicent Weber and Aaron Mannion examine how publishing studies has developed, mapping the forces that shape the discipline and thinking through the affordances and limitations of its current path.

This book grew out of the 2016 Independent Publishing Conference run by the Small Press Network. The conference brings publishers together with researchers from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including publishing studies, literary studies, creative writing and cultural studies. What unifies all is a shared understanding that publishing is—while also fun, exciting, uncommercial, whimsical, profitable or even quixotic—serious business deserving study. The essays collected here clearly demonstrate the value of thinking seriously about both the commercial and cultural aspects of the publishing industry.

Works Cited

Davis, M citing Bourdieu, P 1984, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R. Nice, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Ludovico, A 2013, Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing Since 1894, Onomatopee.

Magner, B 2012, ‘Behind the BookScan Bestseller Lists: Technology and Cultural Anxieties in Early Twenty-First-Century Australia’, Script & Print, vol. 36, no. 4, Bibliographical Society of Australia & New Zealand.

Murray, S 2015 ‘Charting the Digital Literary Sphere’, Contemporary Literature, vol. 56, no. 2, University of Wisconsin Press.

Parliament. House of Commons (26 February 1706) ‘Copyright of Printed Books’, Journals of the House of Commons, vol. 15, (1803). H.M. Stationary Office, London.

Productivity Commission 2016, ‘Intellectual Property Arrangements’, Productivity Commission Inquiry Report, no. 78, Canberra.

Thompson, JB 2005, ‘Publishing as an Economic and Cultural Practice’, Books in the Digital Age, Polity, Cambridge and Malden, MA.

Publishing Means Business

   by Aaron Mannion, Millicent Weber and Katherine Day