“Norway buys 1000 copies of every book a Norwegian author publishes. It provides a $19,000 annual subsidy to every author who is a member of the Authors’ Union. The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly on the sale of books—but is prohibited by law from engaging in price competition. It requires, by law, that bookstores keep books in stock for two years regardless of sales. And it exempts books from its very steep sales tax. Not surprisingly, Griswold finds, “Norwegians everywhere read, and they read a lot; Norway has one of the world’s highest reading rates.”
“In order to transform publishing into a less crisis-bound, short-term-oriented system, we must end capitalism,” according to Andrew Goldstone’s – and my – friend, Colin Gillis, a member of the staff collective at the radical co-op, Rainbow Bookstore, located in Madison, WI. Ending capitalism to fix publishing: this is a tall order indeed, but the decisiveness of Colin’s claim gets us thinking in the right direction. For as I suggested in a previous Arcade post, the problems that plague trade publishing are, by John Thompson’s fascinating sociological account in Merchants of Culture, larger than any individual editor, imprint, or company. Many people of good faith – with excellent intentions and impeccable taste – work in the field, but sort-termism, the increasing pursuit of the frontlist at the expense of the backlist, the escalating allocation of marketing resources to unproven Big Books over myriad worthy Medium-Sized and Small Books by established authors: the forces compelling these changes are now built into the very fabric of how the Big Six do business.
In this post, I want to explore alternatives for the current publishing system – of agents, publishers, distributors – that might make publishing slightly more humane, slightly more rational, but which admittedly fall short of the abolition of capitalism as such. In making this argument, I also wish to avoid nostalgically valorizing the modernist age of publishing, a mistake Andrew discusses in his excellent previous post. In imagining the future of publishing, we shouldn’t look backwards but forward – and to either side to alternate systems that exist in other countries, systems that operate within a framework of state-regulated capitalism not unlike our own.
I will take for granted that the purpose of a trade publishing system is to connect writers with readers. The nature of these readers and writers is a complicated question, one which I have tried to address across numerous previous posts, which argue that reader demand doesn’t emerge from the ether but is constructed through a host of educational and economic processes. Let’s put that complexity to one side for now. The portrait of publishing Thompson creates is both less apocalyptically dire than is often claimed and much more depressing than one might expect. The industry is, by some measures, healthy. More books are being published than ever before. There is, as Thompson describes it, a “diversity of output.” But despite this there has been a marked decrease in the “diversity of market.” The causes of this decline in the diversity of market are complex, and differ in the US and the UK, but can be nicely summed up in this diagram that Thompson gives us near the end of his book.