Blog Post

Another Publishing Field is Possible

“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 emphasis on frontlists at the expense of backlists, 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 this excellent 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.

Global publishing field

Thompson here identifies the major structural problems that publishers face, pressures on the bottom line from two directions: on the one side, from retailers, who increasingly want a relatively small number of titles that sell very quickly. On the other side, from agents, who keep the very tiny cohort of profitable literary brands under tight control, forcing publishers to offer outrageous advances, most of which will never be recouped. Writing of anti-price discrimination laws in the US, discussing the difference pressures on publishers in the US and the UK, Thompson explains:

the Robinson-Patman Act greatly reduces the scope for retailers to negotiate special terms, since additional discount given to one retailer would, by law, have to be given to all retailers in the same class. The result is that discounts in the US tend to remain relatively stable and have fluctuated very little over time. In the UK, by contrast, the downward pressure on publishers’ margins stems primarily from the escalating discounts that have followed the demise of the Net Book Agreement. In the absence of anything comparable to the Robinson-Patman Act, the most powerful retailers are able to use their market muscle to extract higher discounts from publishers, and are able to play publishers off against one another for access to the limited number of high-visibility, high-velocity retail spaces they make available for books.

Note that the differences between countries is partly a result of different regulatory environments. So America’s “free market” in books is anything but free—and that’s a good thing, if you care about the stability and health of publishers. If the Robinson-Patman Act were abolished today, there would presumably be even greater pressure on American publishers, resulting in increasing pressure to find a small number of bestsellers, in a less diverse literary public sphere, in an increased concentration of literary spoils to a very small number of mega-authors, and in the increased power of a small number of giant, near-monopolistic retailers who would promote an even smaller subset of books. This restriction in market diversity may, Thompson very plausibly suggests, eventually result in a reduction in output diversity. In the present, it results in a more anemic literary world and highly unstable careers for writers.

This is all very depressing, but what is hopefully less depressing is that this state of affairs is less a fact of nature than the result of regulatory policies, which suggests that different policies might produce different results. Wendy Griswold’s sociological study, Regionalism and the Reading Class, which Andrew and I discussed in yet another prior post, provides one description of an alternate publishing field, a system very different from the Anglo-American version, but one that still operates within a state-regulated capitalist economy. As a reminder, here is how I described Norway’s publishing field:

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.”

Let me first repeat my initial reaction to this system: Wow! What is most striking to me as I reread this description – the reason I revisit it in light of having read Thompson – is that what seemed to me to be random, neat features of the Norwegian regulatory framework in fact have very specific justifications. These regulations, I hope it is clear, are almost perfectly designed to take short-term bottom- and top-line-oriented pressures off publishers (retailers can’t use their market power to force publishers to give deep discounts), to even the playing field among retailers (retailers can’t use discounting as a weapon to increase marketshare), to provide writers with a reliable living wage (the subsidy and state purchase of books, which presumably makes agents less powerful in Norway), and to incentivize readers to purchase books in large quantities (no steep sales tax).

What does this mean for the Anglo-American field? That we should simply copy Norway wholesale? The answer to this question is up those of us who live in the U.S. and U.K.—I think we can learn a lot from Norway, obviously—but at the very least what it suggests is that the present-day Anglo-American literary/publishing field is anything but the spontaneous product of the free market in books. If we don’t like the shape of the current field, we can do something about it, and it seems to me that literary scholars and critics are in a particularly good position to study the shape of the field, to assess its successes and failures, and to collaborate with sociologists, economists, booksellers, and publishing houses not only to do comparative studies of different fields —which would be a hugely valuable contribution to our understanding in its own right—but to devise healthier alternatives.

Associate Professor of English, University of Maryland, College Park

Lee Konstantinou studies twentieth and twenty-first century American literature, and has current research interests in contemporary fiction, the legacy of postmodernism, comics, science fiction, popular culture, as well as cultural sociology. He wrote the novel Pop Apocalypse (Ecoo/HarperCollins, 2009) and the literary history Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (Harvard University Press, 2016). With Samuel Cohen, he co-edited The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (University of Iowa Press, 2012). He is working on various projects, including "The Cartoon Art: Comics in the Age of Mass High Culture," which argues that the elevation of comics since the 1980s is an important case study that can help us revisit -- and reconfigure -- the mass culture debate after the end of postmodernism. He is Senior Humanities editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.