Map reading the future of radical publishing
| Anne Beech |
As part of Stir’s series on radical publishing and bookselling, I’ve been invited to add my thoughts on the future of radical publishing. This is a personal response, not intended to represent either the publisher I work for, or the community of radical publishing, however defined, as a whole.
A brief background and full disclosure: I’m currently one of the directors of Pluto Press, which itself is one of a small but determined group of avowedly political, independent publishers still committed to the notion of creating and sustaining a space for the dissemination of progressive political ideas and debates.
Pluto began life as the publishing arm of what was then the International Socialists, now more familiar as the SWP. Despite the occasional misconception, that particular connection ceased to exist more than a quarter of a century ago: Pluto today is on the left but unaligned — resolutely broad church, but unashamedly committed to a progressive political agenda.
We’re immensely proud to have survived, and to have continued the spirit of political thinking that inspired the company’s original founders. And we’re determined to weather the changes we are all now facing. Partly because those changes affect not what we deliver, but how we do so. I’ll come back to this point.
Over the years, change has always been seen as a threat in the deeply conservative world of publishing — from the abandonment of the net book agreement (retail price maintenance to most of us) to innovations in print technology to the advent of ebooks and online retailing.
But is our present situation that precarious? Like Nik, I’m tempted to focus on the positives — not out of a sense of false optimism or because I’m dangerously deluded, but because I genuinely believe that these could be auspicious times for publishers like ourselves, who have a clearer sense of who their readers are, and a surer grasp of the importance of addressing key issues and uncomfortable truths.
In the unreal world of publishing punditry, much ink (or should that be toner?) has been spilt on the imminent demise of publishers in our virtually digital world. As a species, it seems, we are doomed. We’re irrelevant. As the big boys, the dark stars of Amazon, Facebook and Google, conspire to colonise our every waking moment (and much of our disposable income), when everything’s available on-line and most of it for free, when anyone can blog and when self-publishing is as easy as uploading a pdf — why bother with intermediaries?
Well, call me old-fashioned (I’d prefer vintage, as it happens), but I would argue that the sheer volume of that all-pervasive communications ‘traffic’ nowadays, whether on blogs, ebooks, email, whatever, threatens to drown out the prospect of real communication. It certainly makes it harder to hear the voices that deserve to be heard, and that we need to hear. The voices that can make a difference. It’s a curious irony that, as ‘communication’ becomes ever easier, we run the risk of hearing and learning less and less.
This, I argue, is where a publisher can make a difference, and where radical publishers can and should help to sustain and enliven the culture of the printed word — whether on a tablet, in an ebook or online. Certainly, publishing is undergoing a period of immense change, but to say that publishing itself is no longer relevant, or has no future, is quite literally to confuse the medium with the message. What we publish is the point — not how.
Words, arguments, ideas need the space — the luxury, if you like — of a studied, fixed, linear form (at the moment, mostly, the ‘printed’ page, however it is delivered) to allow a reader to absorb and engage with the ideas those words express — and even to disagree with them.
By whichever means those ideas reach the reader, the message remains the point. And that message is a deliberated one, the result of a genuine collaboration between a publisher and an author, in which a manuscript is revised, edited, rewritten — made better, clearer, more readable, more coherent, in other words. Made more powerful, more forceful and more central to our ways of thinking. And promoted to as many constituencies as possible, using all of the marketing skills we can muster. No small task in a congested media world. Getting stuff out is not the problem — it’s ensuring that potential readers know about it that’s the hard part. That much is common to all publishing.
In the challenging circumstances we face, however, surely we don’t need just polished prose and a slick marketing campaign. Aren’t we offering an alternative to the bland offerings of the majors — the latest celebrity biog, the TV chef’s reheated seasonal cookbook, the self-help guru’s warmed-over platitudes? We need counter arguments, information, not disinformation, fresh thinking, new ideas — which is absolutely where radical publishers come right back into play.
Because we’re close to many of the communities we publish for, we’re quick to hear new ideas (maybe not always quick enough), and receptive to fresh voices — and because we’re committed to a progressive agenda, we see it as part of our function to encourage critical writing and independent thinking, to foster and develop writers in whose work we believe, to provide the appropriate platforms and forums and to publish as professionally and as competently as we can, in the belief that what we do when we edit, typeset, manufacture, promote and market a book — along with the myriad other logistical skills we have acquired over the years — adds real value.
Whether we do that with ebooks or with paperbacks is not the issue. The issue, rather, is that we remain as nimble and as agile as we can, to provide the space that’s needed for alternative arguments to be developed and brought to the attention of as many interested readers as possible — rather than left to drift in the undifferentiated thickets of the blogosphere, competing against the thousands of other voices vying for attention.
Which is why, having learned how to survive for more than forty years, we’re well equipped to deal with change — and better positioned than many major trade publishers to carve out a space for our authors to flourish.
What all of us on the radical independent left are learning very quickly, however, is that our old publishing models are no longer sufficient. We need new variations, new combinations, smart moves on a mix of media: short-form, long-form, download only, ebook and hard copy cocktails. The potential is bewildering, and it’s difficult at the moment to see a clear path forward.
Readers themselves send mixed messages: students still enjoy the luxury of spreading out four or five textbooks in front of them when they’re studying, rather than juggling with not yet adequate tablets; readers like the sheer convenience of reading some texts (business studies, ‘motivational’ guides and some genre fiction are apparently among the most popular) on tablets or ereaders, but continue to find plenty of shelf-space for bound books, and don’t always enthuse over the ebook ‘reading experience’.
Nik’s comments about the the importance, for radical booksellers, of a physical space embodied in a bricks and mortar bookshop, providing a focus around which communities and campaigns could literally coalesce, rang very true. For publishers, those same bookshops showcase our wares in a way that online retailers never can — but we all have to work together to ensure that those showcases remain open. There is an unbreakable symbiosis between radical booksellers and publishers that becomes more important, not less, in the twenty-first century, which is why the new initiatives forging closer links between radical publishers and booksellers are so important. At a time when the major high street book-selling chains are almost moribund, learning to love your local indie bookseller may be one way of ensuring you have a bookshop of any sort to go to.
So: map reading the future of publishing, particularly radical publishing, just got a whole lot more difficult. But one way or another — in one shape or form — we’ll be around for many more years to come.
Dear readers: stay with us!
Anne Beech is managing director at Pluto Books.
The radical publishing and bookselling series continues with Kika Sro-Miller of Zed Books in our June issue.