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Publishing Should be More About Culture Than Book Sales

8 February 2016

From The Digital Reader:

It seems too obvious to point out that publishing is a cultural activity, not just a process for corporations to make money. That being said, we rarely talk or write about publishing without talking about money, about book sales.

That’s because, even though contemporary publishing has seen the emergence of diverse independent publishers and theself-publishing boom, it is still dominated by multinational corporations. And corporations are all about the numbers.

Most books are produced by one of the “big five” publishing multinationals (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster).

Katherine Bode of Australian National University puts this figure at 74% of books in Australia. These transnational corporations are, by their very nature, focused on the creation of profit rather than the creation of culture.

In fact, for some of those multinational corporations, books and writing aren’t even the largest part of their business.

HarperCollins and Hachette are both subsidiaries of media companies (News Corp and Lagardère respectively). Commercial or “traditional” publishing is not so much aimed at telling a story and hopefully making a profit but at making a profit by telling a story.

In this publishing climate culture is always subsumed to business. The book and its story or narrative are merely a vehicle to generate sales and as such are understood as a unit of exchange rather than as an artefact of expression and/ or meaning.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

Books in General

48 Comments to “Publishing Should be More About Culture Than Book Sales”

  1. “It seems too obvious to point out that publishing is a cultural activity, not just a process for corporations to make money.”

    Thanks, PG, I’m so glad I wasn’t drinking anything when this popped up! 😉

    The qig5(1) care not a wit about culture and everything about what they can make money on (either that or ‘The Digital Reader’ thinks 50Shades was cultural …)

    (1) I was told a while back that dropping the bar and calling the big5 the pig5 was insulting to pigs, so I’ve added that not only have they dropped the bar but they’re doing it backwards, thus the ‘p’ becomes a ‘q’ and pigs everywhere are safe from being compared to the greedy qig5 publishers.)

  2. LOL, Allen! I’d no idea you’d take my comment so to heart.

    Backwards, it’s true.

    And “most” published titles these days don’t come from the Antitrust Five, they come from us indies.

    Culture. Sales. Why can’t we have both?

    • Because if it sells, it ain’t cultural. 🙂

    • Hey, it makes for a good running gag, though I figured I’d better explain it a time or three to reduce the ‘WTH?’ factor.

      As to the ‘culture’ thing, there are very few writers that can make culture interesting enough to sell. (no, me is not one of them …)

  3. Oh, it’s just another dispatch from the “high culture” vs “low culture” warriors. From the same special snowflake mentality that holds that anything with broad appeal is ipso facto inferior, especially if people willingly pay for it.

    I shouldn’t have to elaborate on that here, right?

    Just mock them and move on. 🙂

  4. From what little I’ve read, I had concluded that Dallas J. Baker was a leftist with no experience or knowledge of what a business does, therefore he was an idiot.

    I was 3-for-3.

    Dallas John Baker (born Dallas John Angguish Baker on 19 February 1968) is an Australian writer and academic noted for poetry, short stories and travel writing whose work deals with themes of alienation, otherness and sexuality. He is also known as Dallas Angguish, the name he used as a performance poet beginning in the 1980s.

    A business, whether multinational or local, that does not make a profit from its products will not be around long to publish more culture.

    So the contribution a piece makes to the culture has nothing to do whether it is passed around from hand to hand or made available with a price tag on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. Trying to tie the two together is a waste of effort.

    • And if you want to “create” culture going through for-profit gatekeepers and distributors is self-defeating and stupid.

      Want to “create” culture?
      Give it away. Post it online.

    • A business, whether multinational or local, that does not make a profit from its products will not be around long to publish more culture.

      It can survive in a command economy. That is why those who champion culture over profit are socialists.

      If socialists understood economics, they wouldn’t be socialists. –Milton Friedman

  5. Now, if he was going on a rant about how ever since publishing was taken over by multinational corporations, contracts for the average writer have gotten worse and worse, I’d be with him.

    You never seem to see those rants, though. Only the ones about how the big corporations are harming art. Not artists.

  6. oh good lord. publishing has always been about money and it will always be about money. successful books don’t shape culture, they reflect culture, and if that culture no longer rewards poets, it’s not publishing’s fault.


    • Not really. Books don’t just reflect culture–although that is the most that most of them can do–but they can form culture too.

      Example: St. Augustine’s “The City of God,” which, after the Bible, was the most influential book in the Western world for roughly 1,000 years. Our political, social, and religious institutions (that is, our culture) have been based heavily on it.

      • ah yes, of course, I also neglected to consider Plato’s Republic and the Epic of Gilgamesh.

        • Except not of those were “intended” to form culture. They became cultural artifacts because of the way society reacted to them.
          Opera and ballet weren’t created to be cultural symbols, they were created to entertain the sponsors.

          The difference is that today’s snotty purveyors of “culture” wrap themselves in self-importance by delaring their trifles as cultural “before” society reacts. Or, more commonly, when society yawns and goes on its merry own way.

    • Of coure books create culture. They are vessels for the transmission of culture and knowledge.

      Just off the top of my head, here are a few books that have been enormously important culturally:

      The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
      Common Sense. Thomas Paine.
      The collected works of Sigmund Freud.
      The Communist Manifesto, Das Capital, etc. by Marx.
      The Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith.
      Mein Kampf. Adolf Hitler.
      1984. George Orwell.
      Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe.
      Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Alfred Kinsey.
      Silent Spring. Rachel Carson.

  7. Whenever I read an article like this I’m always curious to see what it is the author would like to have exist in place of current institutions. Government run or subsidized publishers? Some sort of board or commissariat to prevent certain works getting published? Restrictions on the importation of works from outside the domestic market? Some sort of hard limit on the absolute number of books a publisher may issue every year? Proposed “solutions,” not whining. Most of which I suspect I’d disagree with, but that would at least be a coherent starting point to discuss whatever it is this article is on about.

    • Government subsidies (ala NEA) of course.
      Make people pay indirectly for what they refuse to pay directly.

  8. Yet another example of “This is what I demand and I demand that someone else do it for me and someone else pay for it.”

    Writing can be art. It can make an important impact on culture. It can also be informative or educational or entertaining. It can be weird.

    Nobody, not a huge corporation nor a lone writer self-publishing, has any responsibility — moral or otherwise — to produce or sponsor or pay for “art” or “culture”. They can if they want to, if that’s what floats their boat. They can if they see the value in doing so. But to assign them the responsibility according to some lofty ideals? Pfft.

    • “This is what I demand and I demand that someone else do it for me and someone else pay for it.”

      You forgot to add ‘and I demand people be forced to read it!’ 😉

  9. “It seems too obvious to point out that publishing is a cultural activity, not just a process for corporations to make money.”

    I find money is quite helpful in my day to day life. I can’t eat culture.

  10. Culture. Schmulture. Show me the money. 🙂

  11. Some commentors here, as elsewhere at the PV, give short shrift to culture. There is a persistent diminishment of it, apparently because cultural issues are brought up by people who have cockeyed ideas about the worth of digital publishing. Whatever they say is opposed reflexively. At some point I fear someone will quote Goering’s famous remark favorably.

    This anti-cultural attitude may arise from a sense that publishing is little more than a business transaction and that a book’s worth is a function of its sales. Well, publishing does have a business aspect to it–a publisher, whether a corporation or an individual–won’t stay in business long if no one buys the books.

    But what about worthwhile books vs. worthless books? That question seldom comes up, as though there are no such things as good or bad books.

    I’m in Lucca at the moment. Yesterday I bought a copy of Andrea Camilleri’s “Un Mese con Montalbano,” a collection of 30 short detective stories. It’s been raining here, and there is little more enjoyable than cozing up with a good story. But such books neither form nor diminish culture or character. They’re neutral. Many books aren’t.

    If one doesn’t care about personal or cultural development, I suppose it makes no sense to differentiate among books. But if one does care, then presumably it matters whether people in general read good (or at least neutral) stuff or harmful stuff.

    It was a nineteenth-century American cardinal–James Gibbons, I believe–who said that in his adult life he had read only 100 books, but they were the 100 best books ever written, and he read them over and over again.

    There’s something to be said for that attitude. I’ve read many times 100 books, but I’m sure I’ve omitted many on Gibbons’ list–to my disadvantage.

    Books such as detective stories have a utility (they foster leisure, which in itself is a good thing: see Josef Pieper’s book on the topic), but I think it’s wrong to argue as though culture (and the personal development that can come from a good culture) isn’t important or is ignorable.

    All people live within and through a culture, whether high or low, which means culture matters. We do ourselves no favor by ignoring cultural questions.

    • This anti-cultural attitude may arise from a sense that publishing is little more than a business transaction and that a book’s worth is a function of its sales.

      There’s no anti-cultural attitude.

      Publishers provide the economic service of packaging and distributing books to consumers.

      Amazon does the same with KDP.

      Consumers then do whatever they want with the books.

      This article confuses mass distribution services with the way consumers subsequantly use the books.

      • Exactly.
        Society shapes its culture by its deeds, not by what self-appointed “guadians” decide is worthy. Which is where the snotty fight over high culture vs low culture comes from, trying to elevate *their* tastes over those of the masses.

        Sure, THE REPUBLIC is very much an element of our culture but so is Bugs Bunny. And one can argue the latter is more influential, too.

    • Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of culture:

      the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.

      There is no qualitative aspect of that definition. Those detective stories you enjoyed are just as much a part of our culture as works read by the self-limiting cardinal you named. At the same time, works like 50 Shades, which was mentioned in a comment above, are equally a part of our culture, much as many of us would like to deny or forget about them. They illustrate an aspect of who we are as a people, whether we like them or not.

      • Three Stooges, too.
        Even more so when you factor the social commentary hidden behind their slapstick.

        • Exactly. Culture does not have “high” or “low”. Those are labels academicians apply to make themselves feel better and everyone else worse, if they bother to care. Culture simply is.

          One can debate the artistic merits of any of the above, but they all define our culture.

          • The notion that culture doesn’t have a “high” or a “low” is a fairly recent idea. You’d hardly find anyone arguing that prior to, say, 1960. Ruskin, Paul Elmer More, Isaiah Berlin, William Bennett–there’s a long list of people who would disagree with you fundamentally. They’d say that it’s not a matter of mere academic labels, that there really are higher and lower cultures and higher and lower aspects of particular cultures.

            • Maybe, but those notions and labels are still subjective to the academician. Like Felix’s example above, one might hold the Three Stooges as an example of low culture based on its use of slapstick, while another might point out the hidden social commentary and use them as an example of high culture. Neither is wrong or right, but a matter of perception and taste.

            • Karl Keating,

              [T]here’s a long list of people who would disagree with you . . . .

              There is a long, long list of people who disagree with me on every issue, including those issues on which they are ignorant and on which I have recognized expertise. Why should culture be any different?

              A consensus of opinion does not make a thing correct.

              “If 400,000 people do a silly thing, it is still a silly thing.”

      • Yes, thank you. When people bring up the need to create and protect “culture” what they mean is their particular type of culture.

        Any book, even what Karl Keating calls “neutral” books, can both reflect and inform culture.

    • Ashe Elton Parker

      But what about worthwhile books vs. worthless books? That question seldom comes up, as though there are no such things as good or bad books.

      The fact is, each book’s “goodness” or “badness” is determined by each and every reader who picks it up. These are sometimes arbitrary, and always subjective judgments of books. Readers today don’t need to have some intermediary tell them what books they’ll think are good; readers can find books they like on their own. If someone chooses to seek an intermediary’s opinion, that’s fine, but it’s not absolutely necessary. I don’t use review sites, critics’ opinions, or very many suggestions from anybody (not even friends who presumably know me well enough to make suggestions); yet I find more books I want to read than I’ll ever get to in my lifetime.

  12. Well, if you keep reading the business press about a specific business it’s going to concentrate on the business aspects of the business. We have a whole ‘nother industry devoted to the cultural value of publishing, it’s called “academia” and we have a whole ‘nother genre of press called “literary journals”. But hey, “Anguishhe” got to complain about something.

    I used to call his breed “White Bull Poets”….

  13. This article seems particularly pointless now that publishing is essentially free. Why should some board of cultural cognoscenti tell publishers what’s important enough to issue, when they could set up createspace accounts and just issue the approved books themselves?

    • Exactly. Stop whining.
      Go. Create culture one book at a time.

    • Allow me to translate the whine for you:

      ‘Change in the publishing industry is Bad, because publishers (who are Evil Capitalists because they make Money) are not using that Money as they should, to subsidize Important Cultural Contributors like Me!’

      Self-publishing doesn’t subsidize performance artists or political poetasters. It is therefore Doubleplusungood and Crimethink.

      All clear now, my poppets?

      H. Smiggy McStudge

  14. I started reading this and laughed.

    The big5 (qig5?) paint themselves as the only acceptable providers of literary culture. And their author disciples even decry Amazon as a culture destroyer, because that business is “limiting free speech”.

    To see an article saying practically the opposite was entertaining.

    Sadly, it also elevates the myth of the starving artist, and thus is a loss.

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