From Electric Lit:
The elements of Book Twitter are usually pretty predictable: unbridled and sometimes smug love for literature, self-promotion, subtweeting. There are hot controversies (spine-in books, anyone?) and baffling debates about the merits of The Catcher in the Rye once a quarter. You can practically set your watch by it. But this week literary Twitter got a lot more interesting when the parody account @PublishrsWeakly (that’s “weakly,” with an a) began racking up followers. The account was started in March but first tweeted on April 20. They caught our attention with a viral tweet calling for publishers, most of whom are based in New York City, to allow employees to continue working remotely in order to diversify the workforce.
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After gaining 3,000 followers in a day, the account, which is operated anonymously by an “out of work bookseller” and someone who works for indie press, seems to be shifting from parody to activism.
We talked to the anonymous minds behind @PublishrsWeakly, and we also reached out to Publishers Weekly for comment. Two-Es Weekly passed on the letter they’d sent to the parody account once they became aware of it, which we’re quoting with permission here (we’ve removed contact information):
Publishers Weekly-with-an-e here. We’re reaching out today to say that we recognize that publishing is not above parody, and neither are we. Our only request is that you change your logo to something that isn’t so confusing for readers, as we imagine your goal is to rally support and not to trick people. We see the subtle change to the PW logo that you’ve made, but it’s still likely to cause confusion, especially considering the flow of content that people are seeing on Twitter and particularly because a lot of people now follow us both.
We also want to reiterate that we welcome your opinion in the pages of Publishers Weekly, either as an op-ed or as part of a reported story about dissent toward PW’s #BooksAreEssential campaign. We’d be happy to have you talk with a reporter via DMs so as to ensure your anonymity.
The Publishers Weakly writers stress that they’re answering collectively, and the Electric Lit questions were written collectively as well, so read on for some hot collective-on-collective action.
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EL: The perception that people get into publishing out of passion and commitment is often used as leverage to exploit them (“none of us are in this for the money”). But at the same time, a lot of independent and nonprofit publishers really are working with too few resources, out of a sense of cultural duty; they have the freedom to sign books without (as much) regard for commercial viability, but that means they literally do not have the money to do better by staff. What are the ethical obligations of independent publishers? Is there any way for a publisher to be both ethical and solvent? How do you find money to pay people without turning art completely into commerce?
PW: This is a multi-part question that’s going to require a multi-part answer. And we wouldn’t be staying true to ourselves if we weren’t confrontational right off the bat, so:
Saying that independent and non-profit publishers are working “out of a sense of cultural duty” is somewhat of a bad faith argument. As it currently stands, the publishing industry largely serves the interests of the wealthiest higher-ups, and that is the entire reason for any financial strain on publishers without the capital of a corporation. The larger publishers could easily take the risks that smaller publishers do. The only reason for smaller presses to be working with less is because that’s simply how the system has been engineered to function. You see it multiple times a year, the major publishers using the small ones as testing grounds, making the people who are working with less take the risks. Once an author at an indie press proves themselves with things like awards, or cult status, the big publishers will dangle a larger book deal in front of them to try and steal them away. Small presses only work with less because it’s in the corporate publishers best interests to keep it that way.
The only reason for smaller presses to be working with less is because that’s simply how the system has been engineered to function.
Secondly, why ask us about the ethical obligations of independent publishers? The implication there being that we hold them to some kind of higher standard than their larger counterparts. The real question should be: “what are the ethical obligations of publishers.”
The easiest way for a business to be both ethical and profitable is to educate the employees on what they deserve. A happier employee will do better work, and you can achieve these things through things like unionization, a collective understanding of the value of the work that you are doing. Value both in monetary terms, and in terms of importance. Every worker has the legal right to form a union, and it is shameful that people in our industry — the heads of Skyhorse, for one — should feel so comfortable firing those who’ve attempted to unionize.
It should be expected (required) that publishing staff should become acquainted with not only the perspectives of booksellers, but perspectives of workers in distribution and transit. How much money could be saved if we were to look to the workers actually handling the goods being shipped? Publishers wouldn’t have to spend so much money on marketing (and, ahem, Amazon ads) if there were more conversations with booksellers about what people actually want to read, or what the communities would actually need.
And finally, on the subject of “how do you pay people without turning art into commerce”: It’s not entirely just about financial compensation. It’s about our dignity and our rights as workers. Give people healthcare and sick pay and a living wage and then we can talk about the finer points of value and commercial vs. purely artistic output. Furthermore, to some extent, the major publishers have already done exactly that: turned art into a business. And yet they’re still finding ways to mistreat the people at the bottom of the ladder. Crazy how that happens.
Link to the rest at Electric Lit
PG notes that demands by these radical voices include healthcare, sick pay and a living wage, apparently for themselves, while discussing commercial vs. purely artistic output from the organizations that are generating the money to provide these benefits. And don’t forget the perspectives of workers in book distribution and transit should you ever get to know any people like that.
PG further notes that turning “art into a business” is what happens when those who are not independently wealthy would like to spend much of their time writing and (self) publishing books that their readers will enjoy.
For as long as PG has been observing humanity, there have always existed certain types of individuals who know the best way of using other people’s money to make the world a better place. Or something.
Of course, 99.9% of this group want to tell, not show, others how this should be done.